It may be 21 years after the Wedding Present made its one seminal entry in the transatlantic indie canon, yet every subsequent effort has been greeted by the same question: Is [fill in the blank] as good as Seamonsters? It’s telling that that’s what’s still being asked, because it means that the answer hasn’t changed yet. Even if comparing Seamonsters with each of the five proper full-lengths that have come in its wake is admittedly a lazy and ultimately unfair mental exercise, doing so doesn’t diminish the rest of the Weddoes’ output so much as speak to the enduring vitality and visceral punch of their watershed work: Seamonsters really has stood the test of time and repeated listens, its soft-loud-louder dynamics as dramatic as ever, while David Gedge’s open-wound romantic neuroses still sting.
So, no, Valentina doesn’t measure up to the total experience of Seamonsters—and the fact that the Weddoes are playing Seamonsters in its entirety while touring behind their new offering suggests they might very well realize that themselves. Of a piece with the Wedding Present’s previous post-comeback efforts Take Fountain (2005) and El Rey (2008), the group’s latest makes its tried-and-true formula feel fresh and sharp all over again, alternating churning crescendos with loose, jangly guitars that give Gedge enough space to deliver his jaded, jaundiced philosophy on love. So while you could say the Weddoes’ m.o. is fairly predictable at this point, it nonetheless feels vibrant and engaging enough because of the conviction the band puts into its music, be it the bite of the buzzsaw riffs or the snap of the heavy beats or Gedge’s snarling vocals, which can still sneer with the best of ‘em after all these years.
At its strongest moments, Valentina adds a few more singles-quality tracks to the Wedding Present’s long-running hit parade, proving that the band’s bread-and-butter moves have hardly grown stale when they’re executed with verve. Just as there’s no way to mistake the jittery strummed intro of “You Jane” as the handiwork of any outfit other than the Wedding Present, only David Gedge could be as a bipolar as he is telling his perennial tale of being the third wheel in a love triangle, vacillating between vengeful resignation (“Just don’t come crying to me”) and between-the-lines desire for the Hollywood romance the other two have and he can’t. At once, Gedge is a hopeless romantic as he ticks off legendary couples they remind him of—Bogart/Bacall, Gable/Lombard—but he’s also never far from trying to get the last laugh, comparing them to Richard and Liz as well. “Meet Cute” also builds on the Weddoes’ trademark harsh-and-sweet give-and-take, starting with pumped-up riffs and beats that go back and forth with cathartic, calm-after-the-storm breakdowns. There’s a method to the Wedding Present’s method on “Meet Cute”, as the shifting tones are apropos of Gedge’s mood swings, playing hard to get one moment, then rationalizing about getting cold feet the next (“You’re really way out of my league”).
What’s most impressive about Valentina, though, is a palpable sense of spontaneity and energy that shows the Weddoes are doing anything but going through the motions even when they could easily get by taking a paint-by-numbers approach at this point. “Back a Bit…Stop” has a bounding, propulsive recklessness to it that relives the band’s earliest days as shambling lo-fi underdogs (although the minute of background noise at the end of the track is a puzzling waste of space). Likewise, the herky-jerky power-pop of “Deer Caught in the Headlights” and the bobbing, nodding “524 Fidelio” layer their headlong guitars on buoyant, heavy-duty rhythms, each element elevating the other. And when the Wedding Present smooths and straightens out the melody on “524 Fidelio”, the group flashes its best Britpop chops, as Gedge’s down-on-his-knees yearning could give Jarvis Cocker’s smarmy pleas a run for their money.
If anything, it’s only when the Wedding Present goes off script that Valentina loses some momentum. The opener “You’re Dead” begins to pick up steam thanks to the Wedding Present’s typical start-stop-start structure, until Gedge freelances with overly stylized spoke-sung vocals and wincing lines like “You appall me / OK, call me” that he should know enough to leave alone by now. Playing the odd man out again on “Stop Thief!”, Gedge comes off more pathetic and desperate than usual as he begs the other man in the equation for his chance, which makes the track feel more one note than you’d expect from the Wedding Present. On the other hand, the he-said/she-said gag of “The Girl from the DDR” is both too cute and too busy, what with the German retort to Gedge’s lines and the speedy Unrest-like riffing that sounds out of place here.
While it’s hard to fault Gedge and company for trying to tweak what’s become old hat for them, they’re still at their best on Valentina when they’re at their most familiar and predictable. So even if it only reminds you of a legacy that the Wedding Present won’t be outrunning or living down any time soon—or ever—Valentina shows that once you’ve got a good thing going, it’s hard to get enough it.