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One Velvet Underground truism is that everyone who originally bought a copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico went on to start a band. A corollary might be that every style on that album inaugurated a genre: “Femme Fatale” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” created the chill Eurocroon that made possible the likes of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry; “Heroin” and “Venus in Furs” spawned Television, My Bloody Valentine, and so many more; while “Run Run Run” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” are the blueprint for the breathless modal vamp of the Feelies, the Buzzcocks, and the Smiths.
Strip the edge off the Buzzcocks and the sheen off the Smiths and you have the “C86” bands (named for a cassette compiled by New Musical Express in 1986), whose inspired amateurism made for some fleeting thrills. Most broke up in a year or two, and thus didn’t face the dilemma of the Wedding Present, whose quest to stay fresh began to seem a little desperate midway through 1992, the year in which the Leeds quartet released a new limited-edition single every month. The Hit Parade gambit was attention-getting but not career-advancing: At its end, the band was dropped by its British label, whose American arm had already abandoned it.
Like the rest of its class, the Pres ent endearingly juggled melody and noise, awkwardness and grace. Ultimately, singer/lyricist David Gedge decided he had to make a choice, and an extreme one: The band headed for the Midwest, there to be turned into a brutal guitar death machine by producer Steve Albini, who accomplishes such transfigurations in his spare time. The result was typical Albini: intense and one-dimensional. After a while, though, another dimension beckoned, and the Hit Parade B-sides included songs by the Monkees and the Go-Betweens. (Curiously, former Go-Between Robert Forster’s new album also features a Monkees cover.)
The first song on the revamped, re-labeled Present’s new Watusi sounds just like the band used to—but not at first. “So Long, Baby” opens with a thumping Fallbeat, only to shift to the album’s best impression of the “C86” sound and then back again. This compare-and-contrast approach guides the entire album, the band’s craftiest. Whether adding pop or punk elements to the familiar guitar-and-vocal surge, the album provides counterpoint without losing the band’s traditional sound. It could be called The Wedding Present Plus One—or, slyly, Duets.
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Gedge trades vocals on only four tracks—with Carrie Akre on “Gazebo” and “It’s a Gas,” and Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis on “Click Clack” and “Swimming Pools, Movie Stars.” As with the Smiths, though, Gedge’s singing usually shares the cadence of the strumming, so any element outside the quartet’s standard guitar-bass-drums-voice consortium is as startling as a woman’s voice countering Gedge’s gruffness. That could be the organ (played by producer Steve Fisk) of the otherwise archetypical “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah,” the trumpet of “Big Rat,” the alien rhythms of “So Long, Baby,” even the “do-do-do” ‘s and high-pitched funk-guitar scrapings of “Let Him Have It” and the piano and fake surface noise of “Spangle.” Where previous Present albums sought cohesion above all else, on Watusi each song rates its own gimmick.
This playful eclecticism doesn’t fragment the band’s style, in part because Gedge’s voice remains monochromatic, and in part because his sensibility remains monomaniacal: When he’s not lamenting a broken heart, he’s anticipating one. “Watching you undressing/Shouldn’t be depressing,” he admits in “It’s a Gas,” but what if it is? Like spiritual big brother Morrissey, Gedge finds exultation and exaltation in his morbid self-examinations, if only because they’re fuel for more rhythm-guitar romps.
Brisk and tuneful, the album is about as charming as a mainstream move can be, but something has been lost in achieving its pop savvy (or maybe just in the band’s lineup changes). “Catwoman,” the big slow-burn rave-up that effectively closes the album, doesn’t have the juice of its Bizarro/Seamonsters-period equivalents, and “Hot Pants,” the album’s surf-instrumental afterthought, is a throwaway. Watusi is more Monkees than Big Black; guitars are essential to the album, but they’re not its essence.
If Gedge’s double-time strumming echoes the palpitations of his own overanxious heart, Glenn Mercer’s has always pulsed with the music of the spheres. “Make it ring out the truth,” insists the former Feelie in “Time to Go,” the song that opens Hear No Evil, the debut album by his new quartet, Wake Ooloo. Stylistically, the “C86” bands are heirs to the frantic sweep of the Feelies’ epochal Crazy Rhythms, but Mercer has shown no kinship with those groups’ emotional parochialism. He’s from the suburbs, but his music aims for the stars.
That’s just what Wake Ooloo does as well, at least for the first three songs on Evil. Though Mercer and fellow ex-Feelie Dave Weckerman, Ooloo’s drummer, have forsaken their former band’s exemplary two-guitar, two-percussionist format, “Time to Go,” “Another Song,” and “Forty Days” replicate the rush and the roar of its most delirious work. These tracks sound just like the Feelies—“Forty Days” even features a hectic epilogue that qualifies as a Crazy Rhythms flashback—and that’s not a grievance.
Mercer and Weckerman overlap their vocals on “Rise,” which they co-wrote, adding a new aspect to the sound, but that’s about the extent of Ooloo’s experimentation. Though Russell Gambino’s keyboards offer an additional timbre, they aren’t given much to do except to provide a backdrop as Mercer solos (admirably) on tracks like “From Afar” and “Effigy.” (The Stoogey latter takes the role that breakneck covers used to play in Feelies’ live sets.)
The Feelies achieved a stunning quietude on The Good Earth, but Ooloo’s tranquil tunes, “Nobody Heard,” “Grains of Sand,” and “Any Minute,” are unexceptional, and despite Mercer’s luminous playing the latter two bring the album to an underwhelming close. Still, Mercer has never been a prolific songwriter, and Evil is about as well outfitted with memorable songs as were the last two Feelies albums.
Indeed, songwriting in the accepted sense is not Mercer’s calling. Despite their brevity and electric-rock instrumentation, his compositions are not pop tunes of the sort that Watusi modestly, if winningly, updates. More interested in the flow than the hook, “Forty Days” and its Feelies predecessors introduce Dick Dale to Steve Reich; they’re not discrete ditties but rather fragments torn from the universal strum. “What is it now/Another song?” Mercer sings, “the beat goes on/The beat goes on.” In Wake Ooloo, it does, with the possibility of transcendence every time the band achieves an elemental groove.