The marquee bit of news regarding the Wedding Present’s first new album in three years is the fact that Steve Albini is again sitting in as producer … sorry, engineer. Albini was on the boards for their bristling, assaultive Seamonsters disc in 1991, an album which neatly divided the Wedding Present’s discography into two sections: the taut, semi-rockist take on C86 pop that marked their earliest records and the heavier, rougher sounds that marked discs like Seamonsters.
Interestingly, El Rey comes along just when David Gedge and the Wedding Present have been easing into a more gentle pop direction that evokes a mature take on the band’s initial sound. Albums like the moribund Saturnalia (1996), the glossy Take Fountain (2005) and those by Gedge’s side project Cinerama could easily follow a sonic progression that fits into the pre-Seamonsters slot. El Rey, on the other hand, could only be seen as an emotional and musical companion to Albini’s last collaboration with the band.
As snide and perpetually heartbroken as usual, Gedge has pent up some bile over the past decade or so. Though written while Gedge was living in Los Angeles (hence the title, as well as numbers like “Santa Ana Winds” and “Model, Actress, Whatever … ”), very little laissez-faire sunshine peeps through here. Instead, Gedge and associates plow their way through a series of achingly furious numbers. Granted, there’s no punk rock howl – there never has been – and, in fact, most of the disc is either midtempo (“Spider-Man on Hollywood,” “Boo Boo”) or downright plodding (“Palisades,” “Swingers”). But what the Wedding Present lacks in speed, they make up for in smart lyrical venom (“The Thing I Like Best About Him Is His Girlfriend”) and occasional blasts of open-chord jangle-spaz (“Soup”).
Abrasive and catchy, insouciant and insistent, cynical and sensitive, El Rey again captures all the dichotomies that have made Gedge and the Wedding Present a fascinating band throughout the years.