[6 August 2001]
The Wolfgang Press (Michael Allen, Mark Cox and Andrew Gray) were one of 4AD’s most enduring bands, spending the entirety of their career (more than twelve years) with the influential British indie label set up by Ivo Watts Russell back in 1980. Even before they formed the Wolfgang Press in 1983, Cox and Allen had released material on the label—first as Rema Rema (with future Ant-person Marco Pirroni), and then with Mass. (Prior to joining the Wolfgang Press, Gray had also been involved with 4AD, releasing three singles on the label with In Camera.)
The story of the Wolfgang Press is a familiar one. They were a talented alternative band with a distinctive, multifaceted vision: over the course of five studio albums, their sound encompassed everything from dark, somewhat difficult noise to orchestrally enhanced art-angst to idiosyncratic electronic funk-soul hybrids that were well received on the alternative dancefloor. The group garnered critical acclaim, flirted with mainstream success and soldiered on until the mid-‘90s, only to end up as a footnote in alt.rock history, coming up in the context of questions like “Whatever happened to that 4AD band the Wolfgang Press?”
Now, six years after the group ceased trading, this 17-song retrospective—featuring album tracks, remixes, EP material and a previously unavailable live number—serves as a welcome reminder of just how good the Wolfgang Press were.
Strangely, nothing from the band’s 1983 debut album, The Burden of Mules, has found its way onto Everything Is Beautiful. Although this collection isn’t arranged chronologically, the earliest material that novices will encounter here is a cover of Otis Redding’s soul classic “Respect” from the 1984 Scarecrow EP.
If tracks from the group’s debut album were deemed too inaccessible for inclusion on this compilation, then the logic behind the choice of “Respect” is baffling. Were this compilation organised chronologically, some would probably give up immediately upon hearing the song. Another reviewer put it far better than I ever could, describing this version as sounding like karaoke gone horribly wrong. Although it’s produced by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie, there are no ethereal, mantric textures and twee gobbledygook vocals. Instead, this is an ironic, raucous throwaway that falls somewhere between being massively irritating and endlessly entertaining, vocalist Michael Allen’s maniacal performance suggesting that he’s bent on proving he can’t sing. Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser provides backing vocals here—although you might not realise it from listening—and, as Allen comments in his linernotes, “I’m not sure how happy she was doing them”.
Mercifully, however, another early number, “Sweatbox” (from the 1985 EP of the same name), offers a better account of the band’s early work. Also produced by Guthrie, its proto-house keyboard touches hint at the dance-oriented path the group would ultimately take.
By the time of 1986’s Standing Up Straight, the Wolfgang Press had started to explore more expansive, orchestral and industrial textures. Only one example of this tendency appears on the present collection: “I Am the Crime”, an austere, melancholic number that has much in common with the kind of doomy, dark melodic sound that the 4AD label is perhaps best known for. Indeed, songs like this would reinforce the reductive, erroneous categorisation of the Wolfgang Press as a goth band. On “I Am the Crime”, Allen makes up for sins committed on “Respect”. Here his deep vocals put listeners in mind of Nick Cave, while Elizabeth Fraser makes another appearance, albeit in a more recognisable vocal mode.
1988’s Bird Wood Cage saw the band begin to take its first serious steps in the direction of the dancefloor with a slightly warped, hypnotic version of funk. The Flood remix of the chugging, bass-heavy “Kansas” and the manic, mechanical groove of “Shut That Door” not only are the highlights of this compilation but, to these ears, stand as two of the group’s finest moments.
The bulk of this compilation is drawn from the band’s last two, most successful releases, Queer (1991) and Funky Little Demons (1995). The first of these albums found the trio crafting a more seamless and polished electronic collage of rock, soul and funk. With this release, the Wolfgang Press came their closest to mainstream success, almost having an American hit with “A Girl Like You”, a remix of which is featured here. Improbable though it may seem, Tom Jones heard the song and covered it. Not only that, but Jones the Groans had the group write another song for him—“Show Me (Some Devotion)”—and actually performed live with them in Los Angeles during 4AD’s “All Virgos Are Mad” series of gigs in 1994.
Another outstanding cut from Queer included on this retrospective is Allen’s duet with Annie Anxiety, “Dreams and Light”, a track bringing together two distinctive voices for a slow, sexy groove. But at the same time as Queer underscored the Wolfgang Press’ smart pop sensibility, the dark, moody undercurrent of their sound remains. This dimension can be heard on more intense tracks like Martyn Young’s remix of the menacing, anti-Thatcherite “Sucker”, with its angry circular rhythms.
The purchase of their own studio impacted the Wolfgang Press’ recording of Funky Little Demons, the follow-up to Queer. Without the clock running on them, Allen, Cox and Gray took more time (two years to be precise) and moved away from the heavily electronic and synthesised orientation of the previous album to take a more organic, pared-down approach to composition and recording. A good sampling of that approach is provided by the soulful “Going South”, another close-call with success, which features dobro guitar and retro keyboards; Barry Adamson’s remix of “Executioner”; and a live rendition of the mellow, guitar-twangy “People Say”, on which Allen’s vocals are uncannily reminiscent of Lou Reed’s.
Everything Is Beautiful provides the uninitiated with a solid introduction to the work of the Wolfgang Press and offers longtime fans an opportunity to fill in a few minor gaps in their collections. This album serves as a respectable epitaph to another band that should have achieved far more than it did.