Review Summary: Shudder to Think's odd and unique masterwork.
Shudder to Think’s story isn’t unique. They were an alternative rock band in the late eighties and nineties who cut their teeth on a well-respected minor label (Dischord), went through a couple lineup changes, ended up on a major label (Epic), released an album or two on that label, and then relapsed into obscurity, only known to some music nerds and old fans these days. Yeah, their fans called them sell-outs when they made the jump, and yeah, their major label debut is widely considered to be their strongest album. While their history seemingly could be confused with a thousand other bands, their music is largely incomparable. Their first four albums were already a bizarre amalgamation of genres, but with the bigger budget afforded to them by the major label, Shudder to Think went for it all on Pony Express Record
, and created their bizarre masterpiece.
You would be hard-pressed to find many major label releases that had a smaller chance of succeeding than Pony Express Record
. Their music was truly unusual, blending post-hardcore, glam, groove metal and some other genres here and there with mathy time signatures. Mr. Bungle’s records might be stranger, but Mike Patton’s involvement at least guaranteed some interest. Shudder to Think did not have this benefit and they seemed to be well aware of it, as evidenced by their choice for the first single, album opener “Hit Liquor.” If you’ve never heard this song, you should stop reading and go watch the music video for it, since it’s a good litmus test for whether or not you might enjoy this album. It only takes two lines for frontman Craig Wedren to bust out his impressive, trademark vibrato, and on the third he’s in falsetto. The lyrics seem to be chosen at random, with lines like “Party of mouths, a finger fan courtship/The case of her bones are softer than loose meat” opening the refrain. And just for good measure, the music is angular and atonal.
As unconventional as it may be, there is something strangely appealing about Shudder to Think’s approach. The music never gets so jagged that it becomes difficult to listen to, rather they always find a way to streamline their songs just enough at just the right moments so that not only do they stay listenable, but they also stay fun. For example, fan-favorite “X-French Tee Shirt” starts out with the dynamics and vocals all over the place before easing into a second half which is easily the catchiest two and a half minutes of the album. It’s just the same few lines repeated over and over again without much variation, but, like a lot of moments on the record, it’s great to sing along with, even though you know you’re getting the words wrong.
The whole band performs well on the album, including newcomers Adam Wade (drums, ex-Jawbox) and guitarist Nathan Larson who co-wrote a number of the album’s tracks, but the real star of the show is Wedren. Besides writing most of the songs, playing guitar and sporting one of the creepiest goatees ever, he turns in an unforgettable vocal performance. His aforementioned vibrato is something that has to be heard, there are few better outside of opera, but he also croons, has spastic fits, talk-sings and hits the high notes without flaw. His extended note near the end of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” saves the track from being a throwaway, and his entire performance on “Own Me” does the same.
Pony Express Record
is frequently considered to be one of the most underrated albums of the nineties, but in a perfect world this would frequently be considered one of the best albums of the nineties. It isn’t perfect, but music is too often dominated by imitators rather than innovators, and with this record Shudder to Think established themselves as one of the most unique bands of the decade, musically. Unfortunately they only released one more studio album, 1997’s 50,000 BC
, which is solid but more straightforward and less interesting, before focusing on doing soundtracks and then eventually breaking up in 1998. Like their fan and collaborator, the late Jeff Buckley, it is difficult to say whether or not they reached their full potential before their career ended, but all the same they left us with at least one superb album.