Welcome back, David.
The story behind The Wedding Present's reformation is probably germane to any review of their new album, so I'll go ahead and tell it, for those who haven't heard. Back in 1996, David Gedge, their founder and sole original member by that point, ended The Wedding Present to start a project with his girlfriend, Sally Murrell. They moved from England to Seattle and made three albums as Cinerama. However, the project ended after their final album, when the relationship between Gedge and Murrell ended. I haven't read anywhere about what Gedge's emotional state was when that happened, but we've all been there and I can't imagine it was good. Either way, at the end of it all, he called up Simon Cleave, who had played lead guitar on the last couple of Wedding Present records as well as in Cinerama, and they reformed The Wedding Present.
In a way, it's a shame Gedge felt the need to do this, but it sure is understandable. Lyrically, The Wedding Present was always a band most concentrated on miscommunication between lovers, disastrous endings to relationships, and painful feelings of unrequited love. Makes sense that this is the project he would return to in the wake of recent events.
My personal favorite Wedding Present album has always been "Seamonsters". This one was produced by Steve Albini, and his production had an interesting effect on their music. They'd always backed David Gedge's inimitable choked-up nasal tenor with fast-paced, nearly hectic jangly melodies, but on "Seamonsters", the difference was that much of the time when Gedge's vocals were building things to an emotional crescendo, the electric guitars would kick in with so much more power and ferocity than they ever had before that it would sound like an airplane taking off. I've mentioned this in this blog many times before, and I'm sure I'll mention it again, but it never seems to become any less true, so fuck it: for me, this is exactly what those heartbreaking moments of emotional intensity feel like. It's the emotional equivalent of a mournful melody that's suddenly almost eclipsed by a wall of furious noise... though not quite; the melody is still there, somehow floating just above the fiery distortion.
I loved the other Wedding Present albums too, don't get me wrong. However, the noise on "Seamonsters" always made it a personal favorite. I liked the way it stood out from the half-dozen or so other albums The Wedding Present had made. You might not always be able to tell the difference between a track from "Tommy" and a track from "Bizarro", but a "Seamonsters" track was always immediately identifiable.
This brings us to "Take Fountain." Just as many true-blue Wedding Present fans were appalled at "Seamonsters" due to the very same differences that lead me to celebrate it, I'm sure that many are appalled at the direction Gedge and Co. have taken here. I, however, love it. The last thing I'd want to see The Wedding Present do upon reformation is return to the same old ground they've covered many times before. If I wanted to hear that, I could get out my copies of their old albums; after all, I have all of them. No, the things I appreciate the most about "Take Fountain" are its obvious differences from their older work. They worked with Steve Fisk on this record, as they did on "Saturnalia," their last album before the breakup. His production is refreshingly clear and open when compared to the claustrophobic wall-of-sound approach that dominated so many of their older albums. But this is far from the only change here.
The album begins with "On Ramp", which is a surprise just by its very existence. It's two minutes of ambient humming, an intro, from a band who has never used an intro before. The Wedding Present have never really made albums that ebbed and flowed or seemed to have much of an internal structure. Previous albums seemed merely to be a collection of songs that were all recorded around the same time, not anything designed to cohere together or make up more than the sum of its parts. That approach worked fine for them when they used it, but it's nice to see a different tack being taken, especially when "On Ramp" flows seamlessly into the first real song on the album, "Interstate 5". This is another first for The Wedding Present, as far as I know--a song that tops 8 minutes in length. One might expect them to falter when moving this far afield from their traditional stomping ground of the 3 minute pop song, but if anything, the opposite is true. This is one of the more powerful songs in their canon, utilizing a new rhythm section to dramatic effect. There is no way one would mistake new drummer Kari Paavola for any of The Wedding Present's previous stickmen: instead of driving the band frenetically on, Paavola lays back and locks down the rhythm of the song with a beat that might remind one of disco were it not for the relentlessly dark and morose direction of the music. The mood develops underneath Gedge's verses, and after delivering a final depressing couplet ("and yes, there was one particular glance that made me afraid/that you were just seeing me as a chance of getting laid"), he bows out as a vocal presence, leaving the music to steadily build power through repetition more reminiscent of Krautrock than anything. The band reaches a crescendo of sorts about 6 minutes in, then drop back as strings, trumpet, congas and even a vibraphone come to the fore, playing a brooding melody that sounds like the score to an old spaghetti western.
Things get a bit more conventionally Wedding Present on the next few songs, as Gedge's typical melodic sense asserts itself. However, things still sound a bit different than they used to on older albums, and I think this is partly due to Steve Fisk's production, but moreso to a changing idea on Gedge's part of what role guitars play in The Wedding Present's sound. After all, Cinerama's music put far less weight on the guitars, and Gedge played in that band for eight years. He seems to have come away from it with less interest in quickly strummed guitar parts, previously a Wedding Present staple. They only tend to show up on choruses here, if at all. Most of the time the guitars stick to single-note arpeggios or ringing chords, which creates internal space and gives the rhythm section room to shine through. This also pushes the vocal melodies and lyrics to the forefront. No longer does one have to struggle to hear what Gedge is singing. It comes through in all of its poignant, heartbreaking glory. This will certainly be beneficial to today's generation of teenage boys, lying alone in dark rooms and weeping along with the records on their stereo (assuming they aren't listening to Brand New instead).
"Take Fountain"'s sense of a continuous flow doesn't break down after the first few songs. There is definitely a progression, as the album goes on, and emotionally speaking, it's a progression straight down. By the third-to-last song, "Larry's", things have gotten quiet and introspective, and "Queen Anne" manages to deepen the morose feelings by bringing back "Interstate 5"'s strings and horns, again creating a spaghetti western feel. Album closer "Perfect Blue" is not as slow as the two songs that precede it, and therefore doesn't sound as sad, but if anything it feels even more desperate. This is Gedge's last chance to try and bring the woman he's been pining away for all album back to him, and he tries his best. I definitely notice a sense of maturity in his lyrics these days--where before, everything was always the woman's fault, it seems that on "Take Fountain" he's a lot more willing to admit the problems in the situation that are his own. "Perfect Blue" is a good example, on which he sings: "I know that I'll never make you sad, but I should warn you/that I just might never let you out of my sight." There doesn't seem to be a great deal of repentance when discussing his own problems, and one can be sure that he therefore has miles to go before he's solved them. He's admitting them more freely now, and that's something, but it doesn't appear to be enough, at least not this time--the wordless string-section crescendo that ends "Perfect Blue", and this entire album, is beautiful, but it's far too mournful to represent anyone's idea of triumph.
The Wedding Present have been performing and recording, off and on, for nigh on 20 years now, and David Gedge is not exactly the "boy wonder" his early press often called him. However, he's still struggling with the same internal demons, and, as with his contemporary Morrissey, one can't help but wonder whether he will always be in their power to some extent. If so, it's truly a shame, but it's also a blessing in a way, because we're getting some amazing records out of the deal. "Take Fountain" is one of the best so far.