The American indie underground of the ’90 is a decade I’ve managed to completely co-opt through the magic of a Soulseek account, membership to several private torrent trackers, and a last.fm. Across these crawls I’ve discovered some righteous albums and some gnarly bands. Did you know the ’90s gave us at least three (3!) sad-bastard opuses that use overdriven guitars and extremely specific space travel metaphors to chronicle their frontman’s crushing tales of heartbreak and heroin abuse? Heavy stuff.
Heavier still is Shudder to Think, the glam-hardcore outfit responsible for Pony Express Record, an album that, even compared to the rest of the weird, loud, angry rock that was bubbling up from the underground into the mainstream that decade, proved the most head-fucking alt. rock album ever committed to tape.
First, some history. Punk broke through to the mainstream in 1991, and before I get any further with this thought: this is Thurston Moore’s brilliant assertion, not mine. But if you’re thirstin’ for more, here’s the rest: Playing the European festival circuit in 1991, Sonic Youth brought along a little band called Nirvana. Kim Gordon befriended a young Kurt Cobain and even though he was too high for the majority of those two weeks to do much other than shamble around, wide-eyed and completely discombobulated in a white smock, it was still pretty evident to the Youth that the Seattle three piece was going to be the band to finally break noisy underground rock music into the mainstream. Maybe they’d even deal the deathblow to Guns ’N Roses, though I’m gonna speculate here and say getting banned from St. Louis coupled with whatever the hell their Spaghetti Incident was probably did as much damage, if not more, to cock rock.
September of 1991 proved Thurston right; Nirvana’s Nevermind, released courtesy of mega label Geffen Records, began shifting 300,000 radio-friendly units a week. In today’s streaming-ravaged music biz, that would be enough, but back then, everyone wanted more. Daddy’s new Windows ’96-equipped PC wasn’t gonna buy itself, and so began The Great 90s Indie Rock Feeding Frenzy. Major labels, eager to find the next Nirvana, began snapping up weirdo underground acts and paying ungodly sums of cash to fund their studio time, but it wasn’t all screaming fields of sonic love. Sure, it gave a band named the Butthole Surfers the opportunity to score a minor radio hit in 1996, but it also ravaged a fragile ecosystem of cult acts, thrusting talented bands well-suited to their respective niches into a national spotlight they weren’t meant for. Cue the breakups. The sole legacies of these bands? Scathing indictments of “sell-out” in prickly indie ‘zine Maximumrocknrol land incredibly expensive-sounding records with zero appeal to suburban mall punks clamoring for the latest Candlebox LP.
In opposition to this crass commercialism stood Ian MacKaye and his Washington, D.C. label Dischord records. Across his work fronting Minor Threat, MacKaye had proven himself a serious mover and slam-dancer in hardcore while practically inventing emo and post-hardcore with Embrace and Fugazi in the late 80s. Also a vegan straight-edge punk, MacKaye never charged more than $5 for a show, and, in case you got kicked out of one of his shows, made sure a like-minded vegan skinhead was standing at the door to return your five bones. Such righteousness extended to Dischord’s business acumen, and to date, only two bands felt they could do better and left to take a swing at the majors. One was the post-hardcore four piece Jawbox who signed a deal with Atlantic and savored some minor college radio airplay. The other was the heroes of our story, Shudder to Think.
Shudder, by the time they quit Dischord, had recorded four LPs, beginning with the relatively straightforward glam punk of 1988’s Curses, Spells, Voodoo, Mooses (released on MacKaye’s sister’s label, Sammich Records) and culminating in the cryptic post-punk of 1992’s Get Your Goat. Somewhere in the midst of this initial run, the band played the birthday party of local 16 year old Nathan Larson who’d join the band five years later upon the departure of original guitarist Chris Matthews. Following the addition of Jawbox drummer Adam Wade a year after that, the new lineup recorded “Hit Liquor,” their final Dischord single and their first offering for Epic.
It’s not surprising “Hit Liquor” didn’t get a whole lot of MTV play. Try and nod your head along to that lead guitar. Look at the face Wade gives the camera after caressing the head of that dead guy around the 40 second mark. Notice how the body in that bed is gone by the middle of the video? Where’d that meat guitarist Nathan Larson’s hacking away at come from? Oh. And none of that takes into account frontman Craig Wedren’s histrionic, Freddie Mercury on bath salts vocals. Only in the ‘90s could someone coo the lines “The cage of her bones is softer than loose / meat” on a major label single, and Larson’s guitar here, in all its theatrical, horror-movie glory, adds a weird sense of camp to it all.
“Hit Liquor” wasn’t just a vestigial limb of Shudder’s indie days; it was an almighty opening salvo for Shudder 2.0. Larson’s slashes of angular, dissonant guitar chords and Wedren’s perverse ramblings didn’t really seem like a logical choice for a label presumably interested in making money, but Shudder were smart, self-aware dudes. They probably knew that. So instead of toning it down, they laughed and cranked it up. “Gang of $” features all the muscular rhythm and loud guitars expected of an alt-rock outfit, but the machismo’s drained out by Wedren’s flamboyant come-ons to the band’s non-existent groupies. “9 Fingers on You” teases a Stone Temple Pilots groove but consistently comes up a beat short in every measure. “Earthquakes Come Home” almost features a sing along chorus, but that’s sabotaged by a slinky verse that sounds like something Buffalo Bill would prance around to, and “Chakka” would probably have gotten the kids moshing if it didn’t sound like Larson’s guitar was in the wrong tuning. Only “X-French Tee Shirt” got any radio play.
Another David Lynch fever dream of a video, “X-French Tee-Shirt” should have dominated MTV; at it’s heart, this is a pop song, and the first half, built around a whopping two guitar chords, is alt-rock genius. But around the halfway point, the song destroys its own momentum, dissolving from a sensual strut to a single note drone over which Wedren coos a stream of consciousness mantra that seethes for the last three minutes.
Again, the video captures the weirdness of the music, featuring a goateed Wedren riding a service elevator up through a dilapidated hotel to peer in on the guests. All are consumed by tasks at once bizarre and entirely mundane. One’s just riding a bicycle in circles. Another’s wearing angel wings and bouncing a tennis ball. When Wedren arrives at the top, just as that mantra starts, he’s given the old bedroom eyes by a copy of himself. Like “Hit Liquor,” it’s confusing, sexy, spooky as hell, and begs for multiple listens. As does the entirety of Pony Express Record.
I don’t know the exact sales figures of Shudder’s Epic debut; the circumstances surrounding the recording and the immediate fallout of Pony Express Record are almost as cryptic as the album itself. I know “Hit Liquor” got the Beavis and Butthead treatment upon release and I know Wedren is bald in “X-French Tee Shirt” because he was battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the time. There’s a few 120 Minutes performances that are absolutely astounding in their precision, and at one point the Almighty Pitchfork had this record listed as one their top 100 releases of the ’90s.
By the time Shudder resurfaced in 1997 with their second major release, 50,000 B.C. (I reckon this a reference to a wacky 1963 caveman nudie flick), they’d crammed their art-damaged weirdness into ostensibly straightforward pop rock tunes, and in touring with the Foo Fighters and re-recording an old masterpiece, there’s a sense that the band was finally trying to meet their label halfway. Despite this attempted courtship of the mainstream, the band again failed to sell a billion copies (I reckon this was a reasonable quota before Spotify) and quietly released two masterful film soundtracks in 1998 before calling it day.
“Major labels are everything everybody says they are, both good and bad, and so are indies,” says Wedren of his time on Dischord and Epic. Therein lies the brilliance of Shudder. They saw value in the weird, DIY artiness of the American indie underground, but they also knew how to crank the distortion and rock. They could bend the rules of the rigid and sexless Dischord sound and also twist pop into nearly unrecognizable shapes. It’s the same spirit that made Sonic Youth a minor cultural force. Shudder’s songs are rigid in all the wrong places and their melodies ramble and never quite resolve into anything resembling their disparate influences.
22 years later, Pony Express Record’s twisted majesty hasn’t at all diminished. Sure, it sounds completely of it’s time, thanks to it’s overdriven guitars and classically 90s alt-rock production, but in terms of songwriting and performance, it’s completely unique, something of a feat considering snippets of its DNA are everywhere. Fellow DC post-hardcore outfit Dismemberment Plan cribbed some of the knottier rhythms, Deftones bit some of the Pony’s more sensual vocals, and nu-metal pretty boys Incubus have been known to straight up cover “X-French Tee Shirt” when the mood strikes.
Shudder to Think took a genre like post-hardcore, built on loud guitars and mosh-pit ready rhythms, and made something completely alien out of it. It’s something you think we’d see more of today, what with the internet making it easier than ever to maintain schizophrenic music habits. Just today, this bored, jaded youth listened to the new Chance tape, the progged-out final Sunny Day Real Estate album, and the debut records from both the schizoid electronic LFO and LFO the Abercrombie shills. But punk’s taken a turn for the polite in recent years. Mysterious, disturbing, and completely rocking, Shudder to Think made the kind of music that sounded weird at the time and sounds even stranger today.