February 12, 2018
Released On September 13, 1994
Released By Epic Records
I suspect that Washington, DC has been a pretty weird place ever since it was fabricated, more or less whole cloth, out of bunch of farmland (only 1% of it was actually swamp, it turns out). But growing up there, I had no frame of reference, and couldn’t have known at the time that my teenage years, 1988-1995, were coincident with the tail end of a renaissance in DC’s underground culture, a weird cultural diamond forged in the extreme weirdness of that place.
To a 14-year-old, it just seemed like the way the world was. My idols were idealistic, overtly political DIY punks in their 20’s and I spent my evenings watching their bands in rented-out churches, community centers, and high school cafeterias, and my afternoons hanging out at the coffee shops and book stores where they worked. Having spent my tween years obsessively steeped in Prince, Depeche Mode, and Run DMC, I was primed and ready for angst to kick in, and as it did, the more raw, immediate, and broken catharsis of Fugazi and Nation Of Ulysses was glorious.
So that’s my personal backdrop for Shudder To Think. I was a die-hard devotee of Dischord Records and Simple Machines, and my image of a rock star was a pissed-off barista wearing a second-hand mechanic’s shirt with someone else’s name on the patch.
And then came this other thing. It seemed to hatch right in the middle of that nest, right where DC hardcore bands were born, another Dischord record in the 7″ bin at the Georgetown punk store, but when I got it home, it was not like the other stuff. It was an opera singer hollering over a partially melted Zeppelin record. There was a glam sheen to the surface, but it stretched over an underlying armature that was mismatched and screwed up, like a model kit assembled by a petulant know-it-all who threw out the instructions.
The first few listens didn’t make any sense, but thankfully I had more patience then than I do now, and you couldn’t hit “next” on a walkman. And once it clicked, it felt preordained, like a required next step in understanding the world. Sort of like that crazy puzzle piece you’ve been madly hunting for that, once found, turns out not to be the shape or color you were looking for at all.
Pony Express Record was four years into my obsession with Shudder To Think, so it wasn’t the record that first sucked me in, but it does feel like the peak of swagger and playful belligerence in their albums. More important (at least in this context of under-appreciated records), it feels like the moment when the great branching trunk of pop music sprouted a new twig that might have grown into a fabulously gnarled new limb, yet didn’t.
Shudder were at their most sure-footedly perverse, weird, and gorgeous. They’d written their own language of pop, which is a spectacularly rare feat and super hard to wrap your head around. On the one hand, it was feral: like the parallel evolution of a bunch of Queen fans who hadn’t had contact with society in decades. On the other hand, it was a totally obvious progression for the world, a place we were all supposed to follow. Because it was 1994 and “underground” music had been mainstream for a few years and the model of culture was that revolution came from the bottom. Cobain had just passed, and everyone was waiting for the next Nevermind. All we knew for sure was that it wouldn’t sound like anything we’d heard before, but yet it would be obvious — it would be accessible in some new weird way and we’d all know it when we heard it. And that’s what this language was: the soaring hooks and cathartic bursts of anthem were universal — the gut-level stuff of great pop songs — but they were hewn from an insane scramble of discord and chaos that had no identifiable roots or basis for comparison. Something so obvious, but totally unlike anything we’d ever heard before.
I saw twelve Shudder shows that year, and it felt like I was watching a historical inflection point. The wicked mischief of rock is always getting ahead of the safe masses, and it felt like it was moving into free-jazz territory now — virtuosically fucking with people just for the sake of fucking with them. I also saw Radiohead opening for Mudhoney that year, and they didn’t particularly make a dent. Perhaps they were still a few years away from hitting their stride and striking all the chords I’m describing here, ascending to the high throne of art rock. But at the time it seemed so clear who the rightful heirs were.
Abstract pioneers of DC’s storied underground.
Part of me wanted to default to thinking Damian Kulash selected Pony Express Record for his guest contribution album (hurray OYR #100!) because OK Go carries a torch for such unexpected and quirky ideas — both musical and, of course, visual. Leaning solely on that reasoning would be shortsighted though. Nevertheless, it can’t be unstated that Kulash’s chosen post-rock record of the mid-1990s is quirky and off-beat to a very notable degree. The thirteen track release juggles everything from coarse, thick chord-driven guitar support (“9 Fingers On You,” “Own Me“), to stripped down, more melodically focused vocals (“So Into You,” “No Rm. 9, Kentucky“). Then at times, it also leaves head-tilting, sing-spoken vocals to clash against instrumental music that makes both feel caught in a busy intersection, minus adequate navigational signage (“Hit Liquor,” “Chakka“). The latter assessment isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The juxtaposition of musical clarity with density, and balanced movement with off-kilter, simply solidifies that anyone approaching Pony Express Record for the first time as well as anyone who might be harboring some skepticism for all the genre labels and implied stylistic inclusions — which, this was 1994, let’s remember that the distinctions of genre labels carried more weight than they do now, 24 years later — will see Shudder To Think put its money where its mouth is. Mentions of alternative rock, indie rock, post-rock, experimental, and even folk are not unjustly given. Penultimate song “Trackstar” alone displays a cornucopia of musical approaches. Craig Wedren’s vocal slips all around; not moving from note to note with defined, tonal accuracy. Tonal and dynamic heavy breakdowns give the song girth and that post-rock punch. Sprinklings of ambient sounds past the halfway mark coat the track in an experimental gloss. It’s impossible to pick a song from this album and think of a clear picture that Shudder To Think will follow thereafter. Heck, even Pony Express Record in its entirety fails to give a singular snapshot, as this major label break from Shudder To Think’s previous independent work raised eyebrows among fans back in the day. This milestone was a shift in more than one way, and its individual contents are further distinct from each other, to be sure. Certainly, a general vibe of the 1990s resonates through Pony Express Record, as Wedren’s voice occasionally evokes a touch of Incubus’s Brandon Boyd, who didn’t go without injecting bits of vocal oddity and tonal looseness into Incubus’s work over the course of the band’s popularity in the 1990s. Overall, what makes Pony Express Record worth exploring is this band’s ability to display fascinating range without ending up with an album deemed aimless or, one of pure miscellany. Furthermore, if a visit to the past and the less compressed touch on Shudder To Think’s eclectic sound seems intriguing, then there’s a great wealth of character to process here.
I get lost pretty quickly when I see names of genres involving the word “post.” I often don’t know enough about the originating genre to find the point of demarcation. But I think it’s a good kind of lost. You wouldn’t be finding new ground — whether you’re recording or you’re listening — if there weren’t disorientation involved. James Brown putting the emphasis on the 1 wouldn’t have been a breakthrough if it hadn’t made everyone say “Huh?” at first. Same goes for jazz that incorporated 12-tone ideas. (Shouts to Quincy Jones and that bonkers Vulture interview for the tidbit about John Coltrane pulling from Nicolas Slonimsky.) When I’m listening to Pony Express Record, I feel like I’m hearing that same exciting effort to write a new musical language — one where dynamic ups and downs and brutal transitions take the place of fulfilled expectations and fluidity. The starts and stops are the constant, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true: Listen to “Hit Liquor” and see if you can settle into a groove. Try swaying with “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” without becoming profoundly unsettled in the process. Here’s another one: See if you can keep track of when Craig Wedren switches between his full voice and falsetto; it’s like trying to make a drinking game out of Donald Trump lying — the frequency is overwhelming. (I hear the same quality in Chris Thile’s voice; “Earthquakes Come Home” made me wonder if I was listening to a Thile guest spot.) I love the idea that the transitions are the focal point — that instead of making sections flow into one another by minimizing the edges between them, Shudder To Think was moving the interstitial moments to the forefront. It really did feel like my musical vocabulary was getting bigger while I was listening to Pony Express Record. Excellent pick, Mr. Kulash.
Pony Express Record was released the year the ’90s started to shift. Nirvana came to a tragic end as bands like Superchunk, Beck, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails, and Weezer released breakout albums. Ace Of Base had the biggest selling album with three of the top 10 singles of the year and somehow a copy of Cracked Rear View appears in everyone’s home (don’t lie, you know you bought it!). While Pony Express Record mixed well with other bands featured on shows like 120 Minutes, it’s easy to see how lots of great bands like Shudder To Think were overlooked in a year like 1994. Shudder To Think were born nine months after Revolution Summer — a full year before Fugazi. While it’s lazy to compare every DC band ever to Fugazi, these two bands were siblings pushing into new musical territory together. You can hear a familiar sounding Fugazi-esque groove in the middle of songs like “Hit Liquor.” But while Fugazi is all about grooves that build and release tension, Shudder alternates between riffs that fuck you up and beautiful passages. It’s the same musical philosophy as touring mates, The Smashing Pumpkins, but with wildly different results. The complex chords and sharp turns topped with beautiful emotional singing and harmony are also reminiscent of another sibling band, Jawbox (they even shared a drummer). Fugazi and Shudder toured together a lot in 1993 and all three DC area bands shared producer Ted Niceley and recorded albums back to back to back. But with the post-Nirvana music industry boom, each band was courted by every major label under the sun and the family tree starts to split. Shudder went with Epic, Jawbox took For Your Own Special Sweetheart to Atlantic while Fugazi remained famously independent. Somehow, Shudder To Think found their place in the majors even without huge album success. They impressively followed up this album and worked with people ranging from Jeff Buckley to Billy Corgan and even scoured a few soundtracks. Credit is also due for helping usher in the late ’90s/early 00s emo/math rock resurgence, and not just for taking Sunny Day Real Estate out on their last tour. I had always skipped this band in the past, even with their Dischord roots. At the time my teenage brain couldn’t have processed this record, but now I’m looking forward to spending more time with their catalog. Thanks Doug for asking me to come back for this issue and thank you Damian for your obsession.
When I was a teenager, I knew Shudder To Think was a capital-I Important Band, but the chunky, headache-inducing rhythms and Craig Wedren’s strange voice annoyed me — why couldn’t he control it? Plus, they didn’t sound like anything else I listened to, with their musical influences that ranged from jazz to glam rock to pop to DC post-hardcore — a negative to a 15-year-old. But…I get it now! I honestly think Pony Express Record is perfect and I’m upset it took me almost 25 years to realize it. There’s one triptych of songs that I feel best exemplify the band’s sound and skill: “X-French Tee Shirt” (“the single”), “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” (“the slow jam”), and “Chakka” (“the pop song”). Before last week, if you asked me to name one Shudder To Think song on the spot, I probably could only come up with “X-French Tee Shirt.” It was a 120 Minutes-level indie rock hit in the mid-’90s, for its recognizable structure and repetitive, catchy chorus: “Hold back the road that goes / So that the others may do / That you let me in just to / Pour me down their mouths.” It’s also the most Dischord-y and least weird song on the record, but also allows Wedren to show off his beautiful falsetto. Elsewhere, I love how “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” shifts from the acoustic opening, over which Wedren sings a familiar refrain of “Happy birthday, baby,” with a few bars of Adam Wade’s quiet, circular jazz brushes, then a bit of bass, then all of a sudden Wedren is crooning “a doodle of some ancient mother fucking her son” and you know that this is not what was promised. STT fucked with expectations constantly, both of the songs and of themselves as artists, which is one of the reasons Pony Express Record is still listenable and even surprising. Also surprising is the fact that “Chakka,” which can best be described as DC-influenced poppy glam rock (??) was not a hit. Even though the song is heavy, the hook is so good—better than “X-French Tee Shirt!” Wedren is able to shift his voice between these really different songs so seamlessly that I now understand how much control he actually had over it. Every note, however imperfect, seems purposeful. 1994 was an unusually great year for music (when I Googled what was released that year, I kept thinking, “Oh shit, that too?”) so clearly Shudder To Think’s challenging record got lost in the shuffle (and I am seriously part of the problem). As long as you don’t let the very ’90s video for “X-French Tee Shirt” poison you, Pony Express Record, buoyed by its unusualness, sounds timely and modern.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Probably like most people out of the DC post-hardcore orbit from whence they arose, I first heard Shudder To Think on the soundtrack to Velvet Goldmine, an intriguing flick by Todd Haynes from 1998 about the world of ’70s glam rock. Amidst the classics of the era, both originals by Lou Reed, T.Rex, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, etc. and remakes by supergroups with the likes of Thom York, “Jon” Greenwood, Thurston Moore, Ron Asheton, et al were a few new songs written in the appropriate style. One of these was by (future Off Your Radar star?) Grant Lee Buffalo, but two were by STT — and they were very good! “Hot One” had some florid Wakeman-esque piano, big descending chords on tough guitars and a singer with apparently limitless range, from a sepulchral ooze to a dramatic falsetto. That was Craig Wedren, and he really let it out on “Ballad Of Maxwell Demon,” alongside some particularly sweet Ronson-esque guitar. I would probably say that Wedren was a little Bowie-esque, but I think that’s one too many “esques!” Anyway, STT seemed to know what they were doing so I dutifully added 50,000 BC, their most recent album at the time, to my next BMG Club order. And that’s kind of where it ended. There was nothing wrong with 50K BC, but it didn’t really stick. In fact, I sold it in a big music purge a few years ago. But I’m always happy to revisit things and had never actually heard Pony Express Record until this week. Though firmly a ’90s record, there’s a lot that resonates with our current post-rock/post-math-rock/anything goes era, from the complex guitar riffs that repeat and repeat, to the lack of “rockist” machismo in Wedren’s approach. For me, the main pleasure is in those guitars. Wedren and Nathan Larson make a rude yet polished noise together, heavy and detailed, and when they really dig into a swinging riff, as on “Hit Liquor” or “Chakka,” it’s quite a thrill. They also show signs of developing a distinctive melodic touch on songs like “Earthquakes Come Home” and “X-French Tee Shirt,” and their transformation of smoky ’70s jam “So Into You” into a stalker’s anthem is quite something. I won’t be surprised if it pops up in a horror movie in the near future!
A straightforward surreal photoplay that might just have enticed Jodorowsky and Lynch to visit the DC underground.
I’ve had a passing familiarity with Shudder To Think for almost as long as I’ve been a music obsessive. Like many other young punks, my knowledge of them was 100% because of their association with Dischord Records. However, also like many young punks looking for a very specific sound (like that of Minor Threat, Scream, Faith, and Void), I wasn’t too interested in the experimental post-hardcore of Fugazi’s later records, so when those failed to grab me, I opted to look for music elsewhere and ignored a majority of the Dischord discography. Years later, when my tastes began to expand, I know that at some point I listened to Shudder To Think’s final studio album, 50,000 BC, but the only thing I remember about that album was putting “Beauty Strike” on a mix for my then-girlfriend. And until I wrote that previous sentence, I hadn’t even remembered that much. So in a lot of ways, it felt like listening to Pony Express Record this week was my first real experience with the band. And I’m fascinated by it. This is exactly the type of music that I think about when I think of the independent art rock scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The way that Craig Wedren over and under-emphasizes his vocals seems almost random, and the band is just as quick to throw in their own jarring transitions: plenty has been written about the “non-hit” qualities of “X-French Tee Shirt,” but as the album’s only single (and potentially the only track casual listeners have heard) that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not even halfway through “Hit Liquor,” and the band drops any pretense of the song following its own path, much less conventional pop song structures. After the second chorus, all the instrumentation drops away for a new melody. But then immediately afterward is “Gang Of $” which boasts both Wedren’s all-over-the-place delivery and a catchy chorus that actually gets repeated in full. I would have enjoyed this album either way, but the fact that Pony Express Record was not released by Dischord, but instead through Epic Records only makes me enjoy it more. Having that type of financial backing while continuing to make music that they wanted to, especially during a time period when it wasn’t possible to record an album over a weekend and upload it to Bandcamp days later, is an impressive feat and is one of the most punk rock stories I’ve heard about signing to a major (it’s right next the story I told about Chumbawamba a few issues ago). To end this on a decidedly not punk rock note: one thing I discovered while listening to Pony Express Record was that a lot of what Incubus was doing on A Crow Left Of The Murder made more sense. Wait, hear me out! Obviously it’s not like Incubus tried writing a Shudder To Think album, but as one of their more guitar-driven records, the album has a handful of hints, mostly in guitar tones and Boyd’s delivery, of Shudder To Think’s influence. And did you know that Incubus has worked portion of “X French Tee Shirt” into their live set? If you didn’t before, you do now.
This is a very interesting album because on the one hand, I’m going to need several more listens before I truly have a grasp of everything that is happening. On the other hand, it feels chock full of really catchy hooks and a dynamic, unpredictable vocalist that is mesmerizing to listen to. Both of those are positive aspects, by the way. No one wants to listen to an album and “get it” right away. Those are the albums that usually don’t hold up (although, devil’s advocate, the best of the best are sometimes instantly “gettable”). In the hands a less skilled band, or a band who wasn’t working so in sync with one another, this album would have felt formulaic. It would have been lovely to listen to, but everything would have made sense. As it is, all of the moments feel scrambled, like if you took all of the standard sounds that were on the radio in 1994 (when this album came out) and shuffled them like a deck of cards. And I really like it. Take, for example, “Trackstar,” the penultimate track on the album. The very beginning feels like a satisfying ending and the next part feels like the part that should precede that ending. And so forth. The song gradually rewinds into a tight ball of energy which is then blasted into an entirely different direction at the 4:20 mark. I really enjoyed this complex album and I look forward to many more listens as I attempt to unlock all of its mysteries.
I believe this might be a first — an album comes up on OYR that I’ve not only heard before, but could easily have suggested myself. I have been a fan of Shudder To Think since my high school days in the early ’90s, and celebrate the entirety of their catalog, from their little-heard 1989 debut LP on tiny indie label Sammich to their criminally-overlooked 1997 final bow, 50,000 BC. In all honesty, I doubt Pony Express Record would have been my pick — I tend to prefer the earlier material, especially their three albums on Dischord Records. Pony Express Record marked their transition to major label Epic, but it wasn’t that transition that really made the difference for me. Instead, it was the significant lineup change that occurred just before this album. You see, the first four Shudder To Think albums saw truly unique frontman Craig Wedren and perennial bassist Stuart Hill joined by guitarist Chris Matthews and drummer Mike Russell, who seemed to take Wedren’s more bizarre instincts in a slightly poppier direction, which is really just to say that they kept Wedren’s flights of melodic and lyrical fantasy from completely derailing any semblance of logical structure within individual songs. For example, there’s the Funeral At The Movies LP — which probably would have been my Shudder To Think pick — on which songs like “Lies About The Sky” and “Red House” (seriously one of my top 10 favorite songs of all time) are both infected with subtle weirdness and extremely catchy to the point that any structural seasickness is more than overwhelmed by the undeniable melody that sucks you in and refuses to let go. The addition of guitarist Nathan Larson and drummer Adam Wade, both of whom came from other established DC post-hardcore bands (Swiz and Jawbox, respectively), seemed to throw all that out the window. Larson in particular seemed to enter Shudder To Think with a mischievous agenda, as if he was thinking, “Wedren does some pretty weird stuff in this band — let’s see how far out we can take that!” His main tool seems to be extreme syncopation in his riffing, which becomes obvious from the second “Hit Liquor” starts off the album. On the verses, Wade and Hill keep a relatively steady groove going, while Larson’s stop-start guitar syncopation seems to lose pace with the rest of the band, then comes full circle to catch up with itself after every second line or so. The choruses (is it even fair to divide this song, or any of these songs, into verses and choruses? Surely they are by no means that simple, or that easily broken down) see the entire band getting into the act, starting and stopping in syncopated bursts that don’t really even start to make sense until you’ve memorized the riff after the fifth or sixth time through. All the while, Wedren croons in his inimitable high tenor about poetic yet inscrutable things — sample line: “A case of her bones is softer than loose meat” — the vocal rhythm seemingly unaffected by the rigidly controlled chaos beneath. Pauses, and ambient space, are an extremely important part of Shudder To Think’s sound on this album, and while some of them might be there for no more reason than to give space for a breath (both Wedren and the listeners probably need it), they can’t help but take on a portentous air, especially on songs like “X-French Tee Shirt” or “Sweet Year Old,” when a painstaking examination of the overall time signature indicates that these pauses are, indeed, rigidly planned out. The pause at the end of “Sweet Year Old”‘s chorus, which arrives between the words “Fool’s gold…” and “…rush in,” is perfectly on beat and seems to conform to the song’s overall time signature… whatever that might be. (7/8? That’s my best guess, but I could be laughably wrong.) Talking about all this might make a person who’s never heard this album before fear a totally confusing and intimidating listening experience that they’ll have to bust out a slide rule to understand. And listen, that impression isn’t entirely unfounded — as a confirmed Shudder To Think fan, I will still admit that this is not the album I’d advise most people to start with (ignore that caveat if you’re already super-stoked about math rock). But don’t get me wrong! There are some beautiful moments, some moments that will be engraved into my brain until Alzheimer’s (or death) one day wipes it smooth. “Red House” might not be here, but my second-favorite Shudder To Think song is… and that song is “No Rm. 9, Kentucky.” One of the album’s longest songs, this one drew some scorn from friends of mine back when the album came out for its acoustic intro, with its “Happy birthday baby” lyrics. However, it’s not like there’s never been a pop song that started this way. What’s more, the intro is not only more than beautiful enough to justify its existence (yeah, I said it, haters to the left), it provides the needed contrast for the song’s near-silent transition into its first real verse. That verse, which is at first sung by Wedren over whispering brushed drums and bass notes that are more felt than heard, is so vocally and lyrically impressive that it almost negates the need for instrumental backing. Which doesn’t mean that what Larson, Hill, and Wade contribute to it is pointless, just that they thankfully understand that hushed vamping is the best possible thing they can do here, and respond accordingly. This quiet mood lasts throughout what I’m going to go ahead and call the first verse and chorus, which stretches to about the halfway point of the song. Wedren croons beautifully of “a doodle of some ancient mother fucking her son,” combining a lush, gorgeous vocal line with a picturesquely repellent lyrical image, before declaring that “I predict by 3 AM, the pill bottle top will have come undone.” This leads us into a “short-sigh story” that sorta-kinda encompasses the song’s title before Wedren finally declares, slowly, haltingly, as the band subsides into silence, “I guess you’ll do… just… fine.” Wade’s brushed drums bring the band back in for an incredible jazz guitar solo that could have come straight from a Billie Holiday song or something, after which a repetition of the chorus plunges through an abrupt downshift in key, turning the mood from foreboding to downright anxious as Larson’s soloing becomes edged with distortion and terror. It’s a beautiful moment, one of many that lie beneath the surface of this admittedly off-kilter, complex, and intimidating album. I am not trying to scare you away; quite the opposite. Your life will undoubtedly be enriched by every moment of Pony Express Record, whether it’s freaking you out, throwing you for a loop, or suddenly charming you in a manner that seemed impossible a second before. As a musical experience, it’s a challenge, but it’s one you should definitely take. Trust me on this.
With heavy metal blaring into a bar too tiny to hold all its loyal patrons, my friend John pulled me in close to yell into my ear. “Do you think he’s the jealous type,” he asked over the regular Don’t Look Back clatter, “and do you think maybe he won’t like how close of friends you are with a dude?” Looking over at my then-new boyfriend, I kind of shrugged, saying, “I hope not.” Having met there a few weeks prior, I had hesitated until then to bring Eric into my close circle of friends, cautious after a major heartbreak a year before. My friends are so dear to me, and all these questions floated around me that night — what if he doesn’t like them? Or they don’t like him? Or they think he’s too quiet? Or what if we date and then break up and they still want him around and…? Writing about music can be like that, with a new album coming into our lives every week, maybe to stay, maybe just passing us by in the night. From the first notes of “Hit Liquor,” though, I felt an energy run through me. I knew this music, even if I’d never heard it. So much of what I love came from these early ’90s beginnings, with a little noise experimentation, an aggressive but melodic sound that pushes away as it draws you in. Sung against such crisply prickly guitar, Craig Wedren’s vocals hang in a beautifully off-kilter web, calling up Maynard James Keenan and Jeff Buckley. Driving and insistent, this is still a playful album, with pacing changes and abrupt pauses that would come to shape an entire thread of bands. Floored upon first listen, I can’t believe this isn’t a better known band, much less album. Like that first night in Don’t Look Back, as the natural bond among like people shone stronger over mystery beers and whiskey shots, the more I listened to the album the more solidified in my regular musical rotation it became. Thinking back on our wedding, with friends flanking us left and right, spread out into our backyard, I smile to remember the fluttering newness of bringing him into the inner circle of my life. Coming home from work after blaring this in my car, pulling Eric over to the record player while babbling about this new record he just has to hear right now, I smiled with the feeling of bringing something familiar home.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I can understand why STT’s Pony Express Record is regarded as a difficult listen. It can definitely take several listens to fully appreciate what’s happening, both across the entire album and individual songs. Even seemingly straightforward numbers like “Gang Of $,” “9 Fingers On You,” and “Earthquakes Come Home” are multi-layered and reveal themselves when properly explored. At its surface, PER is basically a(n experimental) post-punk record that’s powered by neurotic energy, and features Craig Wedren’s vocals that third wave emo bands dutifully studied. It’s got a snare that snaps (oh, the joy of hearing a bright snare!), and it’s got twitchy, spastic solos that fit in beautifully here. In other words, it’s a helluva listen if you’re into left-of-center songwriting. But what truly struck me about PER is this: You gotta respect an album that gets progressively weirder, as if it’s challenging you to keep listening. The last four songs in particular are a ballsy set. The final minute of “Own Me” is basically a mental breakdown in real time. This leads into the 30 seconds of a cappella that opens “So Into You.” There’s some serious trust placed in your audience with a (seemingly) patience-testing stunt like that. But then, that leads into “Trackstar” whose middle third sounds like an attempt at the Velvet Underground. Finally, the albums ends on an acoustic what’s-it called “Full Body Anchor,” because why not? If there’s a more gleeful sprint into absurdity within ’90s guitar rock, I haven’t found it. Golf clap.
A group fixated on making dissonance & harmony work together, sometimes in a solitary melody.
Pony Express Record is a seriously dissonant album. From their rhythms to harmony to melody, very rarely do Shudder To Think give you what you think you want. So much so that when a more typical-sounding vocal melody somewhat resembling a hook actually shows up, as it first does on “Earthquakes Come Home, it’s actually kind of shocking and even more impactful. Opening track “Hit Liquor” includes four seconds of silence in the middle of the song, long enough for one to wonder if it’s ended before vocalist Craig Wedren finally comes back in and you start to realize what you’re in for. It’s incredibly smart, genre-busting rock music that asks something of its listeners without alienating them, unfamiliar and “difficult,” but not abrasive—sort of like an indie rock Stravinsky. You might think you have the band’s sound figured out by the middle stretch and then “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” opens with strums of an acoustic guitar and it’s kind of a folk song? And this happens again for the 30-second a capella intro of “So Into You.” And again with the quiet, noodling, ambient breakdown in the middle of the minor epic “Trackstar.” It’s odd and cool and exciting as the very best music should be. Shudder To Think strives to surprise on Pony Express Record and succeeds every step of the way.
What do you get when you mix jazz, art-rock, glam, post-punk, noise rock, and folk into one record? Pony Express Record by Shudder To Think — that’s what. The post-hardcore group must have decided that their first major label release just wouldn’t be enough of a challenge for them, so they decided to kick it up a notch by releasing the craziest record of 1994. For those of you who haven’t heard it already, this album walks a fine line between harmony and dissonance which can leave you feeling just a little un-easy. For me, listening to this album evoked similar feelings of watching one of those true crime TV programs. To elaborate, I was drawn in by the aesthetics and promise for something crazy. I was then interested to hear more, but I was also a little scared to see what was lurking around the corner. At times, I must say, it got close to too much for me, but I just couldn’t turn away. By “X-French Tee Shirt,” I felt like I was in a toxic relationship with vocalist, Craig Wedren. To be honest with you, listening to this record was a complicated 54 minutes, but I have to say I am thoroughly addicted. Wedren delivers an incredibly intimate and enticing performance that draws you in despite every cell in your body telling you that he and his instrumentalists are up to no good. So, if you’re looking to re-live the ’90s on the arm of a dangerous heartthrob, make sure you bring a copy of Pony Express Record to fully immerse yourself in that shaky moment.
Erin Calvert (@erinpcalvert)
Elder Goth In The Making
There’s something about my musical sensibilities that made me really enjoy the hell out of the second half of this record. Not to say that the first half wasn’t good, but for some reason things just clicked for me on the home stretch. After hearing the album as a whole, I’m pretty sure it was because of the charming little quirks that started to appear on the bottom half of the tracklist. The first one that really caught my attention was the awkward switch from chorus to bare bones vocal/guitar pluck break after the first verse of “X-French Tee Shirt.” It’s the sort of jarring, unorthodox change that makes you fall in love with a band straight away. I think it’s the same approach that made us all fall in love with Presidents Of The United States Of America all those years ago. Side note: I hate to compare bands to other bands because they might hate the band that I compare them to, but fuck it — my rock references are limited. I fell instantly for the laid back vocal tai chi of “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” as well as the long winded guitar feedback on “So Into You.” Overall, PER boasts a well-honed skill set and versatility that most bands struggle to put together consistently.
I’m not the biggest punk fan… so I was at least a little bit hesitant when I looked into the background of the band. That being said, I actually fund the musicality of this album intriguing. I find that most punk music I had heard before had very screechy guitars and thrashing drums that just didn’t flow together for me. But here? The guitar, drums, and lead singer’s voice go together quite nicely, and I can hear lot more of the rock influences that are up my alley. One of my favourite guitar moments on this album, I think it was in the third track, was this awesome guitar solo, one so good that it inspires you to get up and do your own air version of it anywhere you happen to be. And that alone reminded me why I love giving all music a chance — because I’ll come across unexpected, great musical moments just like that. Also, I’m always struck by lyrics that resonate personally with me, and the opening lyrics of “So Into You” — “I am so into you, I can’t think of anything else” — just hit home. I mean, who hasn’t felt that way before? That song is actually one of my favourites on the album too with great music in the background and Craig Wedren’s voice suiting it perfectly. Best of all, this album really showed me that I can still find great music in something that I may have been hesitant about at first, so don’t miss out if you happen to be weary for whatever reason.
I imagine the words “difficult” and “challenging” would come up a lot if you ask people to describe Pony Express Record after one listen, or maybe even several. They’re not wrong, but I’d like to present a different word that diligent music lovers might agree with: “fun.” Yeah, Pony Express Record is just plain fun. If you’re the type of person who puts on the first Ramones record and really gets into the ’50s pop buried under the thrash and distortion, then this will be fun for you. If you’re the type of person who listens to Doolittle and can’t chase the images of Al Jardine and Carl Wilson out of your head, then this will be fun for you. If you’re the type of person who goes to a gutsy rock show and swoons over an a cappella interlude, then this will be fun for you. I don’t really want to speculate intent on this record — mostly because the mystique and intrigue that these style collisions float in would dissipate — but I have to imagine that this fun mindset was definitely present at the onset of this record. Sure, I bet they were still trying to be challenging and difficult at times, which has to be conceded just by looking at the album’s sequencing. But more and more, I get an image in my head of Craig Wedren, Stuart Hill, Nathan Larson, and Adam Wade all hanging out in front of a School Of Rock-style diagram on rock history and someone saying, “What if we tried to do it all on our next record?” Honestly, that’s not that interesting. There’s a ton of records over the last two decades that feel like that. But what is interesting is that Shudder To Think pulled it off, with results that feel as inspiring and sensational in 2018 as they did in 1994. Sure, there is some stuff left out here and there, but they definitely do that diagram justice and give fans who praise the contrarian qualities of underground music plenty to fall in love with here.
Wish I’d Taken Pictures by Pansy Division
Chosen By Dustin Gates