Out There

Singles going steady

First Love, Last Rites
Shudder to Think
Sony Music Soundtrax

Those who would refer to Shudder to Think as just an avant-hard-rock band miss the point: Any band that covers Jimi Hendrix and the Atlantic Rhythm Section wants to be known as more than just a highbrow take on lowbrow art. There's definite weirdness (and genius) afoot. But Craig Wedren's voice--all quivers and moans, as high and deep as the Trinity after a monthlong rain--virtually defines this D.C. band, even more than the slightly off songs that sound like warped 33-rpm singles played at 31. The idea of Wedren writing words for others to sing (including Liz Phair, Jeff Buckley, Billy Corgan, John Doe, Matt Johnson, and the Cardigans' Nina Persson) might almost be considered heresy among Shudder's cult--if the notion didn't sound so intriguing, and if the result weren't so rewarding.

That Shudder to Think shines in the soundtrack forum is no surprise; how better to showcase a band that hasn't quite decided what it wants to be than by letting it be everything all at once? Even if you don't know the film's premise--the 15 songs collected here represent a pile of singles kept by a loner chick who lives on the fringes of the Louisiana bayou--the album's a delight. When referring to the disc, the members of Shudder don't even mention the movie: They speak of it as a collection of songs playing on an imaginary oldies station in a New York diner. Which is a rather brilliant summation of the concept behind the disc; First Love, Last Rites isn't a retro-fitted record (a la Grace of My Heart) as much as a chance for Buckley to finally pretend he's Al Green, for Cheap Trick's Robin Zander to step into Brian Wilson's sand, and for Low's Alan Sparhawk to prove he's really indie-rock's Neil Diamond. It's a lark, sure, but so much more: This is 1998 rock and roll made in 1978 for a 1958 audience--or what happens when punk-rockers outgrow the club, tire of playing the arena, and crave the bedroom.

Freed from their own responsibilities, the guest stars have a ball: Buckley, stepping into the studio for the final time, begs "I Want Someone Badly," while the Klezmatics' Frank London and some pals pretend they're the Memphis Horns; the track is far better than anything on Buckley's farewell collection. When Corgan rips into "When I Was Born, I Was Bored," he sounds more alive than he has in three albums; he growls like a punk-rocker who really loves new wave. And Liz Phair, singing her way through the "Erecting a Movie Star," has rarely sounded so charming. You can almost hear her smiling between the ooo-ooohs, just as you can feel Doe closing his eyes and clenching his fists as his heart breaks at the "Speed of Love." Not the record of the year, but the best 15 singles of 1998.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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