I haven’t met a whole lot of Shudder to Think fans. There was an ex in college, a coworker at a record store, and aside from my brother, that’s about it. That kind of scarcity of fans doesn’t always bode well for the legacy of a rock band, nor does the recollection of seeing them open for Fugazi at the Palladium in Los Angeles. Fans booed them mercilessly and even threw stuff at them. Singer Craig Wedren scolded them at first, but then realized that the object that nearly hit his head was a quarter and instead thanked the person. The thing is, Shudder to Think was probably the most unlikely and least fitting band to be on Ian MacKaye’s Dischord label. Although there was an underground punk aesthetic to some of STT’s songs, that was only one element. Shudder to Think’s music was equally derived from pop, operatic arena rock, avant-garde jazz and many others.
Not only was Shudder to Think an unlikely fit for Dischord, but they were just as unlikely to be considered for a major label, specifically Epic whose success in the 1980s and ’90s were dominated by acts such as George Michael, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan and Luther Vandross. But, that’s indeed where they went after four indie releases. Pony Express Record was their major label debut, and they certainly delivered an album both true to their artistic vision and a challenge to the everyday listener. Songs start and stop abruptly in mid-stream, genres are blended to perfection and Craig Wedren’s vocals are pure ululating joy. The album also marked the first appearance of guitarist Nathan Larson, a driving force for that record and the future of the band. His jazz meets metal meets post-hardcore style was a signature sound for Pony Express Record and one that has made it such a critical darling, if not a popular one.
I end up listening to particular tracks from Pony Express Record over and over again. “Hit Liquor,” a song I first heard from a promo EP release that had a new version of one of my favorite STT songs, “Red House.” From that song on, I knew I was hooked. Wedren’s vocals didn’t quite seem to go with the grinding guitars. The music would stop for seconds on end to highlight Wedren’s whispery near-falsetto. He would hold notes in vibrato for what seemed like forever. And above all, it rocked. And then, close to the two-minute mark, Larson unleashes a guitar assault to rival all guitar assaults, not in-your-face so much as incredibly technical and face-melting.
“X-French Tee Shirt” is an incredibly schizophrenic track. It’s hard for me to believe this was a single, released as a 7-inch by Sub Pop that year, but then again, I was blown away by it, so why wouldn’t others? Hell, the song even had a video! Wedren’s lyrics seem to at times make sense, “I saw you screaming at the top floor / Big window crash, I’m deaf, so what’d you have to do that for? Him?,” and then turn immediately into non-sequiturs, “In giving it up you chew a little foil.” I suppose this is a mirror to how the accompanying music turns from pop structures to jazz to post-hardcore on the proverbial dime. But the most infectious and heraldic moment comes when, for nearly the last three-fourths of the song, Wedren and company sing what is printed in the liner notes as “Holdbacktheroadthatgoesothattheothermaydowhatyouletmeinjusttopourmedowntheirmouths.” And while it may seem that this straightforward refrain and chord progression is Shudder to Think at their most accessible, remember that having it go on for three minutes certainly wasn’t the norm.
Finally, I’d like to mention “No Rm. 9, Kentucky.” Like “X-French Tee Shirt” it has its delicate moments, its thrashing moments and its share of accessibility, but it is all wrapped up in one crazy and frenetic package. The song begins with a little alt-country flavored happy birthday message that then fades into a slowly brushed drumhead. Again, as in “X-French,” the lyrics go from imagistic to head-scratching, but words like “I predict by 3 a.m. the pill bottle top will have come undone” are magnetic and put a clear picture in your head of sheer desperation. By the end of the song, Wedren’s vibrato vocals and Larson’s mathy guitars crash in glorious discordant harmony and we are left with a mark left so indelibly that we simply can’t forget the song. In fact, whenever I see the CD on my rack, or the cover online somewhere, this is the song that immediately comes to mind.
The last track that I listen to ad infinitum is the lone cover on the album. As unlikely as STT’s place among the underground punk of Dischord and the soul-pop of Epic is their choice of cover in the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s 1976 single, “So Into You.” But, of course, STT turn it into something of their own creation with blazing guitars and Wedren’s rapid-fire falsetto. Frankly, among post-hardcore acts, it ranks right up there with Jawbox’s version of “Cornflake Girl,” another example of an unlikely pairing.
The legions of fans of Shudder to Think may be few, but they are mighty. Though I haven’t met hordes of fans, I have never met a fan that wasn’t a rabid fan. Those who like Shudder to Think love Shudder to Think. They are often a band I consider misplaced in time. Sure, they shared some similarities with some of the post-hardcore acts from the early ’90s, but they were truly set apart from the rest. Wedren has since gone on to score films including School of Rock (even penning the tune for mock rock band No Vacancy) and movies for his friends in the State including Wet Hot American Summer and The Ten. Larson has also continued in the soundtrack vein providing tunes for Boys Don’t Cry, Dirty Pretty Things and the upcoming Chuck Pahlaniuk adaptation, Choke. Larson also married the Cardigans’ Nina Persson, creating a wonderful musical collaboration with her as well called A Camp. And although I love all of these resulting projects, I dearly miss Shudder to Think. I was so into them, I could think nothing else.
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