In their 12 years together, Shudder To Think were an anomaly. Too pop for the punk scene, but too punk for the pop market, they have remained a hidden gem in both; occupying the space between the Revolution Summer bands of 1985 and the mid-90's second wave of glam rock.
A Nation of Misfits: Shudder to Think
***people might hate this one on a dc band that went pop, but whatever. easily one of my favorite bands of all time. in all their incarnations.*** ReviewNathan Leigh
In the mid-80's in Washington DC, a group of bands came together rebelling against what they saw as the macho takeover of the hardcore scene. They played a slower, more melodic, introspective breed of hardcore, which would eventually be cited as the origins of that genre of music everybody loves to hate these days; “emo.” (The internet is pretty much overflowing with accounts of the origins of emo, so I wont really get into it, but fourfa.com is probably the best if you're interested. Although the DC scene retrospective book Dance of Days is also a great read...) The bands included former Minor Threat and future Fugazi founder Ian Mackaye's Embrace, future co-Fugazi leader and unwitting emo godfather Guy Piccioto's Rites of Spring, as well as bands like Moss Icon, Grey Matter, and Mission Impossible, which featured a very young Dave Grohl on drums.
Instrumentally, Shudder To Think's early material was a perfect fit in that scene, with twin Gibson SGs flailing behind a wall of feedback and noise, Stweart Hill's present melodic bass lines, and Mike Russell's dynamic virtuosic drumming. Their jagged swirling guitar work clearly took a cue from fellow Dischord acts Grey Matter, Rites of Spring, and Embrace, but they were separated by lead singer Craig Wedren's haunting piercing tenor.
(The Ballad of Maxwell Demon)
In their first few records, Wedren finds a previously unknown middle ground between HR's stratospheric growl and David Bowie's jaunting lyricism (with his guttural sharp delivery, Ro from their debut Curses, Spells, Voodoo, Mooses could almost pass for a lost Bad Brains track). He ditches the raspy throaty shout of most of his contemporaries, instead using falsetto and even vibrato. Where many punk singers use their voices as a blunt instrument; designed to provide maximum force at maximum intensity, Wedren's is uncharacteristically delicate, effete, and often even beautiful.
Lyrically also Wedren's work is distinct. He avoids the scene and self-criticism of Embrace, the vegan proselytizing of Soulside, and even the now tiresome, but then novel “my girlfriend left me and I'm really really sad” of Rites of Spring, Grey Matter, and Rain. Instead, Wedren paints vivid but abstract images which occasionally coalesce into some sort of narrative or theme, but more often then not baffle with their dense layers of metaphor.
(Shudder to Think)
In Rain Covered Cat from Get Your Goat Wedren sings “can't kill rain covered cat / can't kill until you hear him” as if it makes all the sense in the world (it's apparently a well known fact, that in addition to cats always landing feet first, they are immortal when wet). While Shake Your Halo Down (one of my all time favorite songs, incidentally) opens with the vivid but perplexing “dip a cloth in a bowl of blood / clean your horse's hide with it / stick a fish in a tattoo gun / watch what color ink comes out.”
In the DC scene often obsessed with legitimacy, punk credentials, and moral grandstanding, Shudder To Think didn't take a stand on anything beyond “art for art's sake.” They made no excuses for the obtuseness of their lyrics, and had no pretension of “scene cred.” Wedren describes the band's Dischord debut Ten Spot as “Lysergic hardcore...[you can] definitely hear the influence of surrealism 101 class on the lyrics and music.”
After original guitarist Christ Matthews and drummer Mike Russell left the band in 92, former Swiz bassist Nathan Larson joined the band on lead guitar and backing vocals, bringing his post-punk meets soul style to the bands already eclectic mix. Jawbox drummer Adam Wade completed the lineup, adding his skill with unusual time signatures and angular drum patterns. The new lineup recorded one last single for Dischord before getting swept up in the early 90's post-Nirvana underground act major label signing frenzy.
Total sidebar: I've always found it a little amusing and somehow fitting that a band who was part of the original movement that birthed emo; our modern day corporate blanket term for “whatever it is the kids like these days,” ended up lumped in with the similarly meaningless term “grunge.”
(I blew away and shake your halo)
But something odd happened in the transition from the friends and family run Dischord to the suits-with-ponytails run Epic Records. Unlike most punk bands who make the switch from the indies to the majors and tone down their sound in the interest of attracting a larger audience (cough cough Bad Religion, Anti-Flag, The Offspring, and AFI (but seriously, what the hell happened to AFI??? I guess I tuned out between their fun but unremarkable skatepunk debut record and their million selling hits...I actually thought they were two totally different bands at first like the post-hardcore quartet Fuel and the pop rock band from the mid 90's of the same name...)), Shudder To Think doubled down on their weirdness releasing the most adventurous and bizarre major label debut this side of Frank Zappa.
The end result was the semi-legendary Pony Express Record. An unrelenting mix of feedback, unusual tonality, choppy rhythms, and rambling sharp lyrics, the album skates between moments of haunting beauty and pummeling noise. It's centerpiece is a deconstructed cover of Atlanta Rhythm Section's soulful 70's hit So Into You. An odd cover, even for a band who had previously given the punk cover treatment to John Lennon's Imagine and Jimi Hendrix's Crosstown Traffic. Unsurprisingly, their noisy experimental barely melodic masterpiece failed to find much of an audience in the mainstream.
In the 3 year interim between Pony Express Record and 50,000 BC, while Wedren fought a successful battle with Hodgkin's disease, the band began to fracture. Wade left the band to be replaced by former Dambuiders drummer Kevin March, while Larson wanting more opportunities to showcase his own songwriting embarked on the solo project Mind Science of the Mind.
When the band came back together little trace remained of the band who once recorded a seven and a half minute spoken word noise collage in which Mike Russell chants “ride that sexy horse” behind barely suppressed laughter. Although their final studio record contained some flashes of their earlier brilliance (She's A Skull seems included just to prove that they could still pull out a killer post-hardcore tune when they wanted to), it leaned far more towards their poppier inclinations. The resulting album alienated both longtime fans who missed the sublime weirdness of their earlier tracks, and the mainstream audience for whom the band was still too dissonant.
(Tony Told Me / Imagine (Live))
Their last few years found the band focusing on soundtrack work. Their soundtrack to 1998's First Love Last Rites features some of their most nuanced songwriting, and some great guest vocalist turns. But by then they had done a full 180. Their punk roots had been entirely subsumed by their glam and pop influences, with only Craig Wedren's distinctive voice providing a link to their Dischord-era work. Their contributions to the Bowie-fan-favorite (as an obsessive Bowie fan myself, the movie is basically the best thing ever) but generally ignored by the rest of the world Velvet Goldmine are the highlights of their soundtrack era. The Larson penned Hot One and Wedren's Ballad of Maxwell Demon find the band living out their 70's glam fantasies to glorious effect.
After the generally unexciting High Art soundtrack in 1998, Larson left the band, and the rest of the members soon followed. Wedren and Larson have since continued their careers as film composers, and both have founded indie pop acts. Larson with Hot One (the band...not the song...) and A Camp, while Wedren founded the a-few-years-before-their-time indie dance band Baby and released a pretty rad solo record Lapland in 2005. The group reunited for a brief tour in 2008, which was documented on the stellar live album Live From Home.
Shudder To Think's legacy, like the band's music, is tricky to pin down. Unlike many genuinely unique bands from the 80's punk scene, Shudder To Think never had a wave of imitators. Often cited as an influence by post-hardcore bands (these days, post-hardcore is a polite way of saying emo, I think), their blend of vocal melody, abstract lyrics, and unrelenting guitar noise is certainly a part of the DNA of modern punk and post-hardcore, but still no-one has succeeded in capturing their intensity, experimental spirit, and sincere commitment to their art. However, perhaps in the inevitable 90's nostalgia wave that will overtake us all in the next few years, Shudder To Think may finally get their due.
Vinyl, Digital, or Torrent: Their early releases are long out of print on vinyl and their major label discs came out during the heyday of the CD, so digital download is the only way to go with these guys. Which era of theirs you'll like basically comes down to whether you prefer the classic “DC sound” or Bowie-esque ballads. But the mid-career Get Your Goat and Pony Express Record find Shudder To Think at their Shudder To Thinkiest, and are required listening in their entirety.