I consider Shudder To Think to be an exercise in onomatopoeia.
They sound just like you’d imagine “shuddering to think” would sound: anxious, uncomfortable and somewhat irritating, like you’re anticipating the worst, but the worst never really arrives.
Back in college, listening to the New York-via-D.C. band’s 1994 major-label debut “Pony Express Record” made me feel all of those things. Not the qualities I’d hoped for from a former Dischord Records band, where screamy post-punk was the order of the day. But Shudder To Think’s bread and butter was extending themselves beyond expectations and daring your senses to keep up.
There was nothing simple or easy about “Pony Express,” which made it an even tougher nut to crack for simple, easy minds like mine. It was still “rock” in the sense it had “rock instruments.” But “Pony Express” was full of stutter-step post-punk, awkward time signatures and singer Craig Wedren’s unsettling, if not unique, vocals. It was even weirder than their previous Dischord work, something that few indie bands who hop to the majors even dared to attempt.
As the record sunk in, with glammy, roller-coaster tracks like “Gang of $” and “9 Fingers On You” I realized that Shudder was trying to play with their own kind of pop language, a brand of rock that straddles the line between prog metal and sinewy operatic histrionics. “Pony Express” changed the way I approached “alt rock” and has stayed in my head and in my CD player for years.
A battle with Hodgkin’s Disease in 1997 left Wedren hobbled but hopeful, and their subsequent and final proper album “50,000 B.C.” was a kinder, gentler version of Shudder To Think, much to the dismay of long time fans who wanted more of the sonic Chinese finger trap they’d come to expect and love from the band. “50,000 B.C.” took on a slicker vibe, informed by ’60s pop and optimism that comes with surviving a brush with death. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t as mean.
Latter-day Shudder To Think seemed to soften up after that, lending their services to score indie films such as “High Art,” “First Love, Last Rites” and “Velvet Goldmine” and eventually disbanded in 1998. The work therein crossed many genres, from ’50s doo-wop through ’70s glam and into pulsing electronica.
That transition from off-kilter art rock into more varied, cinematic sounds has stayed with Craig Wedren and since helped define him. Since Shudder, he’s become something of a renaissance man, musically tackling commercials, comedy shows and more recent film soundtracks such as “Laurel Canyon,” “Roger Dodger” and “School of Rock” like an East Coast Jon Brion.
His first-ever solo outing “Lapland” harkens back to the warm friendly tones of ’70s AOR radio, with a Southern Cal expansiveness. Orchestral flourishes and backing vocals bring a fullness to Wedren’s sound. “Lapland” actually feels like a refined continuation of “50,000 B.C.’s” embrace of the melodic power ballad. It’s a gem of a record that makes the heart grow fonder with every listening.
The album opens up with an modest, pretty guitar line on “Kingdom,” signaling a move for simpler melody smoldering into a rambling hook that doesn’t try to do too much, the overarching thesis in Wedren’s newest incarnation.
“Do You Harm” feels plucked right from “50,000 B.C.,” lush with delicate backup vocals and a prime-time chorus. His lovely voice seems stronger, more confident and with a tangible sense of control. I like to think of him as a Bizarro Jeff Buckley, laced with similar fluttering falsettos and eerie phrasings. “Fifteen Minutes Late,” dusted with piano, and eloquent acoustic restraint, is a great showcase for just how far Wedren has come.
Intimate lyrics are a departure for the words-for-sound’s-sake approach Wedren’s played with before. “My heart is cruel / My love’s a foolish song / and my head is so strong / Didn’t mean to do you harm” is a couple of intercontinental flight away from nuggets like “Party of mouths / a finger-fan courtship / A case of her bones are softer than loose meat” from “Pony Express’s” “Hit Liquor.” But he lets his oblique lyricism flow now and again, such as on “She Don’t Sleep:” “Where cross-eyes misbehave / and clock-hands go nowhere / it’s bed-lurching bad weather / stuck beneath your hair.”
He’s mentioned in the past the possibility of a Shudder To Think reunion. “I'm itching to let my freak flag fly a little bit more. I don't think I'd like to go any further into grown-upsville,” he said in a July Spin profile. Let’s hope the lessons he’s learned on his way to “Lapland” carry over into a rebirth of one of the most innovative bands in rock.
For more information on Craig Wedren, visit http://www.craigwedren.com/.