“I’m flexible” is a funny phrase, stretched between one meaning and its opposite. “I’m flexible” can be an acrobat who’s also a trapeze artist and a contortionist who eats fire and bends legs behind their head. It can the baseball player whose face adorns giant banners outside of the hometown stadium because, somehow, he hits, pitches, catches, and plays shortstop like he was meant for each role separately. It can be Craig Wedren and his band Shudder to Think, whose voice leaps octaves and whose songs are all about fireworks, only fireworks set off dangerously close to your head. Taking equal doses of punk, post-punk, glam, and a not-yet-really-in-existence genre known as math rock, the band were admired by many but loved by few because the time when they were active, the 90s, was not a time when a punk kid would listen to bowie or when a Joy Division fan would own up to liking Rites of Spring.
Shudder to Think were the best kind of musical anomaly, the kind that’s not a flash in the pan. Instead the group managed to create a deep, complicated back catalog with wonderful diversity. Especially in their tenure of Dischord, Shudder to Think wrote aggressive, often-hostile songs, but I can’t help but smile when I listen to them. “X-French Tee Shirt”, the first single off their major label debut, their major label debut, is a grinding, slithering song which features exactly one chord.
Like I said, though, “I’m Flexible” can also be anonymous, pliant, background, a doormat. “Hey, nobody wants to work the Saturday night shift at the pizza place? I can do it, I’m Flexible.” “No, I don’t need a cut in the earnings of the screenplay I wrote. I’m flexible on that point.” etc. And that’s not what you would have pictured from a band with as much personality as Shudder to Think. But their last recorded material, the soundtrack to the 1998 art-house film First Love, Last Rites finds the band reigning it back. A lot.
This isn’t to say the album isn’t diverse and plenty weird and plenty fun and end-to-end brilliant, it’s just to say it sounds like the work of 13 different bands, not one Shudder to Think. The band’s signature traits- changing time signatures, repetition that borders on grating, a vocalist who sounds like he’s getting his arms pulled off by horses, are nowhere to be found on First Love, Last Rites. I’ve never seen the movie which the soundtrack stems from, but I know that it is based off a short story collection by Ian McEwan, so perhaps that explains the album’s scattered sound.
Part of the reason this doesn’t feel like a Shudder to Think album is because Craig Wedren’s vocals are only on three of the tracks, one of them a rerecording of a song which Jeff Buckley sings on earlier in the album. As good of a voice as Wedren has, his version sounds flat in comparison to Buckleys. On the bulk of the album, Shudder to Think act as a backing band to some of the biggest indie acts of the 90s. The album works so well because Shudder to Think wrote songs so perfectly tailored to each guest singer; and so the singer puts everything he or she has into it.
On“When I Was Born, I Was Bored” Billy Corgan’s sneers so well you will wish that Smashing Pumpkins wrote more punk songs. On “Speed of Love” John Doe gets to sing the exact country ballad he’d been aiming for since X broke up. Jeff Buckley gets to channel Stax R&B on opener “I Want Someone Badly”. Liz Phair gets to sing like a 50s pop star, with her thin voice perfectly reflecting the coy, sarcastic words she’s singing. Robin Zander gets the most spectacularly poppy song that Cheap Trick never wrote. Nina Person from the Cardigans sings a touching, intimate lullaby backed only by a ukulele. Matt Johnson from The The (Remember “This is The Day”? If not, it’s time for you to rewatch Empire Records.) gets to sounds crazy swampy and backwoods-y.
And, most surprising of all, the always stoic and serious married couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low get to vamp the fuck out on a hilarious Crystals homage (replete with awesome spoken word introduction). Every track sounds fun, but every track also sounds committed and professional. This isn’t just people messing around with a major label budget.
And so you get flexibility at the other extreme and see that ceding ego doesn’t mean things fall apart. If Shudder to Think had tried to play every track on First Love, Last Rites, the album would have failed. Here’s a band which began with an insurmountable personality and ended on a high note because they were able to subvert that.
“I Want To Love Someone Badly (Feat. Jeff Buckley)” “When I Was Born, I Was Bored (Feat. Billy Corgan)” “Appalachian Lullaby (Feat Nina Persson)” and “Just Really Want To See You (Feat. Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker)” are all from Shudder To Think’s soundtrack to the movie First Love, Last Rites.
And more summer songs!
And more summer shows!
- The across-the-board-exceptional-looking Square Roots Fest is happening up in Lincoln Square this weekend.
- John Langford wants to tell you a story at the Hideout this friday.
- White Magic play the Burlington on Saturday.
- Joan of Arc play something mysterious called the Swerp Mansion on the 27th!
- Aesop Rock plays the Metro on the 28th.