Shudder to Think is not an easy band to love, but there are rewards for those who do. The Washington DC quartet’s most obvious distinguishing feature is singer/guitarist Craig Wedren’s voice — a huge, mincing, swooping thing that declaims his wildly surreal “poetic” lyrics and beelines for a quasi-operatic vibrato at the slightest opportunity. If you can get past that, or learn to like it (it is mighty expressive), there’s the instrumental backing: gnarly, riff-based prog-rock cunningly disguised in shiny punk and hard-rock clothes. The band has pretensions to Art, and sometimes pulls it off. In short, Shudder to Think are great if you can stand ’em.
The band’s vinyl-only debut, on the Sammich label (which later released Pony Express Record on vinyl) is one of the rarest DC-scene records. Moving to Dischord, the original lineup — Wedren, bassist Stuart Hill, drummer Mike Russell and dreadlocked guitarist Chris Matthews — made the eleven-song Ten-Spot, which contains a handful of promising, tricky post-hardcore songs, notably “Jade-Dust Eyes” (originally from a split single with Unrest) and “Rag,” but suffers from shallow, tinny self-production.
Funeral at the Movies is a state-of-the-band EP, whose highlights include a manic cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” a pretty song called “Red House” (not a Hendrix cover) and a couple of live standards, “Chocolate” and “Day Ditty.” There’s also a ridiculously awful “surreal” recitative, “I Blew Away/Ride That Sexy Horse”: sometimes arty just means pretentious. The CD version includes all of Ten-Spot.
The band’s songwriting improves dramatically with Get Your Goat, getting even stranger and artier (as does Wedren’s voice, which goes for the big vibrato with alarming frequency). The album incorporates tough rock riffing and schizoid dissonance. The lyrics are hit-or-miss: “Stick a fish in a tattoo gun/Watch what color ink comes out,” for example, works as what Robert Bly calls “leaping poetry,” but the next couplet in “Shake Your Halo Down” — “Die, gin bottle wedged in wet hand/Best at what I do, mom says” — is just plain babble. “She Wears He-Harem” opened the band’s shows for years; a free-noise passage in “Shake Your Halo Down” recalls My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realize”; Wedren’s unaccompanied singing on “Funny” hints at German art-song. The production (by Eli Janney) still doesn’t do the songs justice, but there’s definitely something interesting going on.
Matthews was subsequently replaced by guitarist Nathan Larson, whose muscular hard-rock approach is more simpatico with Wedren’s. Your Choice Live Series, despite not-great sound, is an interesting document, recorded at a German show, of the band trying to figure out how to rework its songs — “Shake Your Halo Down” becomes a show-closing raveup, Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So in to You” (which wouldn’t show up in a studio version until Pony Express Record) a bizarre choice for a cover. The album is also notable for “I Grow Cold,” available nowhere else, and “Birthday Song,” which became the opening section of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky.”
Debuting new drummer Adam Wade (and dedicated to Matthews and Russell), Shudder made its farewell to Dischord a career-high-point single containing two great, bizarre songs (both with long silent passages): “Hit Liquor” and “No Rm. 9, Kentucky.” In 1993, an equally terrific and weird three-song demo tape (“Kissi Penny,” “Gang of $” and “X-French Tee Shirt”) made the rounds, and Shudder to Think built a reputation as a tremendous live band. Signed to Epic, their first recording session for the label produced live-to-two-track versions of a bunch of older songs, which showed up on various B-sides and promotional records for a while (the best is a ferocious two-minute condensation of “Shake Your Halo Down” on the “X-French Tee-Shirt” single).
Pony Express Record is Shudder to Think’s Big Rock Move, with production by Ted Nicely and a blast-out-of-the-speakers mix by Andy Wallace (of Nevermind fame). Despite a huge promotional campaign, it stiffed commercially. Too hard-rock for the avant-gardists and way too weird for hard-rockers, the record alienated the band’s core constituency of Dischord cultists by including (slightly inferior) rerecordings of both sides of the “Hit Liquor” single, and, more significantly, by being on a major label. It’s still got some great moments: “X-French Tee-Shirt” gets almost an entire song out of a single chord, the metallic “Chakka” is built on a riff that keeps evaporating and recondensing, “9 Fingers on You” enters “Detroit Rock City” territory and “Own Me” is a cunning Larson rewrite of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” (The preceding Hit Liquor EP contains the recut title track, demos for the album’s “Kissi Penny” and “Full Body Anchor” and live-in-the-studio alternate versions of one song each from Ten-Spot and Funeral at the Movies.)
Wedren was sidelined with Hodgkin’s disease in late 1995. Larson’s solo project, Mind Science of the Mind, finds him backed by a group including Helium’s Mary Timony and the Dambuilders’ Joan Wasser. If, for the most part, far milder, the songs are harmonically and rhythmically almost as out-there as Shudder to Think songs. Without Wedren’s voice, though, it’s just not the same. What these songs need is something with real personality to push them over the top, and Larson’s perfectly reasonable singing doesn’t quite do it.