What Made the Wedding Present Great (1985-1991)

The genius of the early Wedding Present was the tense interplay between David Gedge's heartfelt yet quotidian lyrics of love and loss and Pete Solowka's mad, banjo-like strumming.

The early greatness of Leeds' the Wedding Present surely must be put down to the magical alchemy that occurs between the witty, contemporary, and yet somehow plainly colloquial songwriting of David Gedge and the blitzoid guitar attack of one Pete Solowka, who appears to be strumming a banjo on speed when he straps on his Fender SG. Unlike contemporaries the Smiths, this chemical interaction -- Gedge is to Morrissey as Solowka is to Marr -- is not quite so clear cut as Gedge also plays rhythm guitar. Formed as a serious band from the remains of the Lost Pandas, the Weddoes toured local clubs and pubs and issued several singles on their own record label, Reception, before hitting it big with notices and airplay from John Peel and critical acclaim for their debut, George Best.

The Reception Era

Their second Reception single "Once More" demonstrates the "shambling" C86 speedy guitar half of the Weddoes' formula quite nicely.

Here's a classic track from the debut George Best, which highlights Gedge's obsession with the quotidian and his deployment of Northern colloquialisms. This fine performance is taken from a home city performance: "Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft" (Live at Leeds Colosseum, 1990).

Despite the delicious sound of the blitzoid guitars, what made the Wedding Present great from day one was Gedge's gift at lyricizing the obsessive angst of love, the pitfalls of lust, the stuff of relationships and the inevitable bust-ups. Yup, he beat Stephen Merritt to the punch by a decade. Often topping fan polls of favorite Weddoes songs, "I'm Not Always So Stupid" began life rather as the fourth and last track on the 1988 EP Nobody's Twisting Your Arm. Now kids, you can best find it as an extra to the 1997 reissue of the Wedding Present's debut album, George Best. The first time I heard the first verse of the song...

Every time a car drives past I think it's you

Every time somebody laughs I think it's you

You changed your number and my phonebook's such a mess

But I can't bear to cross your name out yet

Each time the doorbell rings it might be you

Each letter the postman brings might be from you

I said to myself by gosh that's me. Her name was... well none of your business really.

Shaking myself out of a nostalgic reverie and getting back to the song, "I'm Not Always So Stupid" represents the quintessence of what made the original C-86 Pete Solowka-driven Wedding Present the classic lineup. Hard driving guitars madly strummed as if it were a banjo breakdown and Gedge's plaintive almost in tune warble. Sure it was a simple and repetitive sound featured on those great Reception records "Once More", "My Favourite Dress", "Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft", Shatner", "The Boy Can Wait", "Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now", but what a sound.

The song starts with several bars of guitar work by Gedge, a quick drum arpeggio, and then Solowka comes in maniacally strumming. The tension of the song's lyric is mimicked in the battle between Solowka trying to speed things up and Gedge leisurely reminiscing about a long lost love: "Somebody told me you went to work down South / as far away as you can from my big mouth." Then it's another epochal guitar workout that sounds like a history of rock 101 riffs and a fast close with the first two lines of the song doubled and repeated as a kind of refrain. If this music doesn't move you emotionally, get off the Xanax and live a little. The Weddoes at their absolute zenith!

The RCA Era

As late as the "difficult" second album and major label debut, 1989's Bizarro, The Wedding Present still very much present themselves as a duo publicly, albeit with Solowka much the junior partner. Here's an interview from Canadian TV during this era (1990 precisely after the Albini EP had "fixed" Bizarro) that also features the brilliant single "Kennedy" and some other live clips including an early workout of what would become Seamonsters' "Corduroy".

For another take on the band's guitar brilliance listen to the short history of rock and roll riffing provided in the extended instrumental conclusion to "Take Me!" also from Bizarro from 3:40 or so to the end at 9:18! But especially from 5:00 to 5:51.

I saw the Wedding Present at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco during this era. And the inevitable decline's presence was palpable. It's name was the dread influence of Mr. Steve Albini. No longer driven by the folk-like breakdowns of Solowka, the guitar noise came through pedal effects, like the one Gedge continuouslystomped off and on throughout the re-"invigorated" Albini-version of "Brassneck." Thankfully I was on the balcony above and behind the band, where I could here the music properly through their monitors and also espy the setlist!

In fairness, Albini's influence wasn't all malign. He helped them produce their masterpiece a year later in Seamonsters, one of those albums whose coherent whole is so much more than the sum of its parts, especially the latter tracks which seem to run along without any real destination in mind. And yet in many ways it seems not to be the same band anymore; the original formula no longer apparent in the complexer mix of instruments and guitar effects. Ironically, from this apex, Solowka was almost immediately fired, as sales failed to live up to RCA's hopes and expectations. Somebody had to be the scapegoat. Here's his take on the whole affair from an interview with the something and nothing website:

I was kicked out! Officially this was for not being a good enough guitar player and not contributing enough to the song-writing... Reasons for actions such as this are complex but I am sure that it had a lot to do with the following. We had just recorded 'Seamonsters' -- our (in RCA's opinion) 'very difficult' third album. RCA needed something that would increase sales beyond our fanbase and although we were really happy with the album, it was clear to us that there was no 'mega hit' there. We knew we'd have to face their disapproval. Also, the Ukrainian music was still generating interest, at times deflecting interviewers from the current records we were trying to promote. As I was the Ukrainian link, they thought this problem would go away when I did. I feel I was made a bit of a scapegoat for the bands failings. (Something and Nothing)

Here's Seamonstres's central track, "Suck".

And then it was over. Sure the band made the occasional decent track in the next five years, but notice how 1992's Hit Parade experiment (or "scam" in Solowka's telling) while providing the band with a record 12 chart singles in a year produced far better results from the covers: be they Angelo Badamenti ("Falling"), The Go-Betweens ("Cattle and Cane") or The Close Lobsters ("Let's Make Some Plans"). Sure they also returned after the nine-year intercession of Cinerama-years in 2005, newly relocated to Seattle with Take Fountain. But really that band was Cinerama in everything but name, and "I'm From Farther North Than You" pales in comparison to "I'm Not Always So Stupid." Alas, the original essential genius of the band's tense interplay between Gedge and Solowka was long gone.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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