Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

This Update Brought to You Via Pony Express

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I’m not sure how big a deal this is to anyone else, but when I read this week’s news that Shudder to Think is getting back together for a short reunion tour, I could have damn near finger-drummed the entire Pony Express Record album on my desk. For, despite them being one of my Favorite Bands of All Time, I’ve never seen them live.

Shudder to Think were never a band with a big following, but for the folks they managed to win over (especially through the aforementioned groundbreaking prog-pop masterpiece and their subsequent forays into hook-driven guitar rock and eclectic soundtrack work), nothing quite fills the gap they left.

In 1994, I was in college and in my first serious rock band (in that we actually practiced regularly, wrote our own songs, played more than a high school talent show). Our singer-guitarist had picked up Pony Express Record on a whim and was pushing it on everyone he could. On first listen, I was impressed by the meter changes, but I couldn’t get past what I thought was just so much pretentious artiness. The complicated rhythms, dissonant chords, and jarringly operatic vocals were just too much – too randomly abrupt and experimental for experimental’s sake.

But I was challenged by the drumming and had to know exactly what made the parts tick, and, in the process of piecing together Adam Wade’s inversions of classic 4/4 and 6/8 beats over decidedly non-classic time-signatures and precise fills, my perspective changed on the whole thing. There was nothing random about Pony Express Record. In fact, it was a deliberate tearing down of rock conventions and piecing them together in an ungainly, but beautiful way.

At the time, I was taking my first lit crit course, and I strongly associated the approach with Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, but I don’t think that quite fits. Pony Express Record doesn’t bring to light the absences of traditional rock music, but instead takes the ingredients of even the most ham-handed of classic guitar rock – unabashedly anthemic leads and power chords, singalong choruses, a spotlight-hogging powerhouse vocalist, lyrics about big concepts like love and death – and rearranges them into a brand new shape. Shudder to Think (at least circa Pony Express Record*) are cubist rock.

Cubist Rock

Cubist Rock

Take “Earthquakes Come Home,” for instance. The opening verse struggles to maintain a steady rhythm and confounds attempts to predict where the melody might go, when, suddenly, the first occurrence of a staccato bass, drums, and guitar cue triggers Craig Wedren’s transformation into an arena rock frontman in what sounds like the chorus. But this introduction of the title phrase is only a warm-up.

By the time he gets to what might be called the actual chorus (“Heaven is holding out for high scores…”), the music and his vocals practically come to you with open arms in their unabashed and straightforward sonic sentimentality. But even the most overt of rock moments are subverted on Pony Express Record. In this case, the power ballad chorus is undercut by a set of characteristically bizarre lyrics – a mess of powerful words that sound great together, but mean virtually nothing (similarly, the band’s cover of the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s “So Into You,” which, of course, has perfectly linear and comprehensible lyrics, is Shudder to Think-ized by a practically rhythm-less verse).

I’ve never been able to find an interview to verify it, but I was once told that Wedren wrote more traditional lyrics for all of the songs, then substituted sound-alike nonsense phrases. There’s some evidence of this method on the less experimental (but brilliantly catchy) follow-up, 50,000 B.C., where Wedren readily uses near homophonic substitution for the sake of creating nonsensical soundalike verses. The first verse of “Survival”** starts with these lines:

I put up a song
To grease the temple
Start in the middle.

The second begins as follows:

I put up a sign said, “Grease the
Temple.” Startled Tomatoes.

While the lyrical aspect of Shudder to Think’s songwriting always interested me, it’s never really informed the way I wrote lyrics (when I first heard them in 1994, I was far more interested in the down-to-Earth simplicity of Freedy Johnston, whom I’d also just discovered, and it’s that kind of storytelling lyricism that stuck). The music, however, influenced the way I thought about playing drums and writing music irrevocably. I learned to think around the meter and occasionally play in a way that emphasized the melody instead of the beat or stay in one time signature while the rest of the band switched to another (for an example, listen to Dimes’*** “Heaven’s Not So High” on my muxtape) or to underplay a bizarre rhythm change so that most general audiences don’t even catch it (again, see the muxtape for Dimes’ “Minutes and Distance”).

So, in short, the tickets for the Chicago show on September 5 are already ordered. I could go on for a lot longer, but instead I’ll leave you with this fantastic interview with drummer Adam Wade, which includes a song-by-song run-down of Pony Express Record.

* There’s some debate among S2T fans about the merits of the PER/post-PER sound (engineered by the creative partnership of Wedren and new guitarist, Nathan Larson) and the pre-PER sound, which was influential in its own right, but cut from a more traditional Dischord punk cloth (albeit with Wedren’s distinctive vocals). It should be clear where I stand. Larson’s and Wedren’s non-S2T work doesn’t provide many clues as to who was “most responsible” for the band’s evolution, though; Larson’s brilliantly quirky Mind Science of the Mind album (recorded before 50,000 B.C.) may be PER‘s nearest relative, and Wedren’s Lapland (released long after the breakup) has some PER moments, but both musicians have also released plenty of solo work (much of it for films) that’s shockingly straightforward (Larson’s first true solo album is blue-eyed soul and the sole album by his new band, Hot One, is full of metal licks, a glam rock attitude, and cheeky lyrics about sex and politics).
** As mentioned on the CD extra of 50,000 B.C., “Survival” was originally written for Elvis Costello to sing on the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack, a neat collection of S2T-penned songs mostly sung by other people and meant to evoke specific types of pop music. I wonder what he would have made of the words. “Startled tomatoes,” indeed.
*** Dimes came about as a result of me answering a musician want ad that mentioned S2T. We didn’t sound that much like them, but there were certainly moments. The guitarist who posted the ad once told me that he was introduced to S2T the same way I was and went around hating PER for months before finally getting it.

Written by Dave

July 12, 2008 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Music

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6 Responses

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  1. I feel compelled to add a couple of things here –

    1. “I could have damn near finger-drummed the entire Pony Express Record album on my desk.” The only reason you didn’t is because you damn near finger-drummed the whole thing on the steering-wheel instead. Hippest car in the Pick ‘N Save parking lot!

    2. The whole lot of you reading this are required, by law, to go listen to “Minutes and Distance” on the Muxtape. I met Dave because I was a hardcore groupie for that brilliant f-ing band. Go. now.

    3. (related) “…to underplay a bizarre rhythm change so that most general audiences don’t even catch it…” oh, no. They caught it every time they suddenly realized that their head-nodding was no longer in time and had to do something like go “WOO” or raise their beers to cover. By the time they got it sorted out, you had shifted back and dammit…


    July 12, 2008 at 9:09 pm

  2. I seriously will never understand the obsession that you guys had/have with this record.

    Arty prog rock.


    Give me Hank Sr over Wedren any day of the week. This Cooleyville citizen will go drink coffee now.

    brad knapp

    July 13, 2008 at 7:54 am

  3. You’re not alone. I’ve got maybe a 40 percent success rate as a Pony Express Record proselytizer.

    I don’t think Hank Sr. and Wedren are really going for the same thing, so I don’t see a problem with having both. There are, however, a couple of convincing old-school country tunes on the First Love, Last Rites soundtrack (one sung by John Doe).

    Their post-Pony Express material is surprisingly un-prog: power-pop on 50,000 B.C., a dead-on 70s Bowie impression on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, low-key electronic stuff on the High Art soundtrack, all kinds of stuff on First Love, Last Rites. You might even like some of it if you don’t like PER.


    July 13, 2008 at 10:46 am

  4. Going by the usually infallible (sorry Drive By Truckers has been a fail for me) musical tastes of Dave, I’m blind buying The Pony Express Album.


    July 23, 2008 at 10:00 am

  5. Well, DBT and Pony Express Record-era Shudder to Think are probably about as different as it gets in a rock context, so I’ll be curious to hear how it goes. As mentioned above, they’re definiely not to everyone’s tastes.


    July 23, 2008 at 10:12 am

  6. […] to Think – Live from Home To spare me from having to write the back story, read this .  Reader, I did go to that show, stood in the front row, and loved hearing so many songs that I […]

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