Graded on a Curve:
The Wedding Present,
George Best 30

Although they sprouted from ’80s indie pop soil, indeed making the cut for the New Musical Express’ legendary C86 compilation, The Wedding Present have long transcended the style. Still, those early days continue to radiate with engaging verve; tampering with its essence would seem decidedly not smart, but that’s just what David Gedge and company went and did. George Best 30 is a rerecording of their full-length debut, and the results defy the odds through precision, live-performance energy, and the assistance of Steve Albini. It’s out now on vinyl and compact disc through Scopitones in the UK and Happy Happy Birthday to Me in the US.

The Wedding Present has maintained a high enough standard of quality that I’m guessing there’s no overwhelming consensus regarding their best album. For example, this writer’s pick is 1989’s Bizarro, and it’s safe to surmise that their three ’90s studio discs all have their partisans, with the same holding true for their output since the turn of the century (let’s leave the numerous compilations and live recordings out of this).

However, if the band has an essential full-length, it’s probably ’87’s George Best. Even if it’s not one’s beloved choice, as the record that put them on the ’80s indie pop radar screen, it was a smashing success, combining hyperactive jangle, energetic rhythms, thick bass, and the distinctive vocal moodiness of sole constant member David Gedge. Paving the way forward, three decades later it still holds up; it may not be everyone’s fave, but it’s difficult to imagine a Wedding Present fan that doesn’t hold George Best in high esteem.

Therefore, it would seem, if not necessarily foolish, then certainly a precarious move to release a rerecording of the LP’s dozen tunes, even with Steve Albini at the console. But here it’s worth stressing that this George Best redux isn’t exactly new; it was cut with Albini in 2008 directly after finishing the El Rey album, and more importantly while Best was still fresh in the band’s collective memory after the 20th anniversary tour for the album the previous year.

El Rey rekindled a strong relationship with Albini, who’d previously produced ’91’s Seamonsters and before that, the single version of Bizarro’s opening track “Brassneck” (It and three other Albini-recorded cuts, including a cover of Pavement’s “Box Elder,” were tacked onto the end of the Bizarro CD). But when asked to helm this version of George Best, Albini was unsurprisingly and understandably reluctant.

Once noted for infusing raw beef into the sounds of those who procured his services, Albini does so here, but to his credit rather anonymously and with a light touch, as the band made good on Gedge’s assurance that it would all be quick and easy. George Best 30 is not a reimagining of the material that ignited the group’s long career, but is simply a sharper and bolder run-through of the album as they played it on that ’07 tour; essentially, it’s just a live-in-studio session.

The promo text for this set pays particular attention to the drums, which in ’87 were recorded live on a Simmons electronic drum kit, resulting in a sound that is by now an indelible part of the original album (and very ‘80s, in fact). But in Gedge’s view, it left room for improvement, which is just what occurred on George Best’s follow-up Bizarro. And it’s exactly what happens here, as well, with Graeme Ramsay handling the kit and dishing a forceful and dexterous natural tone throughout.

It’s worth mentioning that Ramsay didn’t play on the original, nor did anybody else save for Gedge. That might read as another setup for failure, but in this case, it’s carried the contents in the opposite direction, perhaps through a lack of anxiety over revisiting hallowed territory. The band instead tackles the songs with gusto and spur Gedge into delivery that’s vigorous and relaxed at the same time.

Naturally, there are differences, but they’re subtle, and more interesting are the smaller touches that are retained, such as the female backing vocal, presumably rendered here by bassist Terry de Castro (‘twas Amelia Fletcher of Talulah Gosh and Heavenly on the original), in opener “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft” and closer “You Can’t Moan, Can You?” Ditto for Gedge’s whistling in the opening track.

The jangle is perceptibly warmer and larger, which fits the intentions of this second go-round to a T, though this is maybe the one spot where some listeners will quibble. The nature of the riffing on the early Wedding Present stuff, borderline thin but emphatic (and nowhere more so than on their delirious C86 killer “This Boy Can Wait (A Little Longer)”) is intrinsic to the appeal. But hey; George Best 30 isn’t a replacement, it’s an addendum, and as such, it works exceedingly, and miraculously, well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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