Shudder To Think made the most head-fucking non-hit of the ’90s

Shudder To Think made the most head-fucking non-hit of the ’90s

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

There are bands that want to be popular, wealthy, and loved. And there are bands that don’t, the ones that would rather toil in the fringes without having to deal with the compromises of the mainstream world. That’s usually because their minds, and their music, simply don’t work in a way that appeals to the masses. Outliers and outsiders can sometimes become stars, but if the ’90s taught us anything, it’s that outliers and outsiders can become the mainstream itself—and because they’re quirky or contrarian, not in spite of it.

This zeitgeist shift was in full swing in 1994, even if the pendulum seemed to have gone as far as it could with Nirvana’s 1993 swansong, In Utero, a clawed hand to the eardrums that puzzled or repulsed more people than it charmed. And pop music, no matter its coating, is supposed to be about charm. Which makes “X-French Tee Shirt,” a 1994 single by the Washington, D.C.-based band Shudder To Think, that much more bizarre. It was released on Epic, a major label, with the ostensible intent of being sold and making money. The group is made up of four mildly attractive young men. At first glance, everything about Shudder To Think drips accessibility and rock-star charm. Everything, that is, except its music.

“X-French Tee-Shirt” appears on Pony Express Record, the most astoundingly head-fucking rock album to be released by a major label in the ’90s—In Utero included. Sure, there were weirder bands that somehow managed to secure a major-label deal in that decade of throwing a contract at any alternative band that moved. It helps to remember that this was the decade where the legendary noisemaking terror cell Butthole Surfers not only wound up on a major, but also had a radio hit. But the band was named Butthole Surfers, for fuck’s sake. Anything less than a sonic keelhauling would have seemed accessible given that fact—and “Pepper,” the band’s 1996 hit, is downright pleasant compared to the Surfers’ ’80s output.

Shudder To Think, on the other hand, got less pleasant when it jumped to Epic. Before that, the group had released albums for years on Dischord Records, one of the most religiously independent labels in existence. Those albums show an ambitious band struggling to execute its ambitious conception of post-hardcore—Dischord’s stock in trade at the time, thanks to the label’s standard-bearer, Fugazi. Instead of angry, Shudder To Think was mysterious. Instead of outspoken, it was poetic. Instead of angular, it was lush. By the time the band came into its own, on 1992’s masterfully mysterious Get Your Goat, its final album for Dischord, it was clear that post-hardcore was a scene that simply didn’t have enough atmosphere for Shudder To Think to thrive in.

As it turns out, Shudder To Think may have simply loved being the odd band out. “X-French Tee Shirt” not only alienated almost every casual consumer of alternative rock that happened across it, it pushed away many of its existing fans. Frontman Craig Wedren had always been theatrical onstage, but now he’d shaved his head, grown a goatee, put on makeup, and seemed to fancy himself the Freddie Mercury of the alt-rock nation. But where Queen—a band it’s hard to imagine Shudder To Think not loving—invited the everyman into its epic, bombastic anthems, Wedren and crew practically dared people to like “X-French Tee Shirt.”

The song’s video goes hand-in-hand with the music. Both of those hands are nail-polished. Wedren, looking like Anton LaVey as fever-dreamed by Liberace, begins the song with a sensual whisper of the words, “Say what?” From there, the song doesn’t explode—it seeps into the air like poison gas. In a year of Pearl Jam flannels, Weezer sweaters, and Green Day spikes, Shudder To Think went glam—but not traditionally so. Riffs glide past each other, frictionless yet dissonant. The rhythm spasms with fractured emphasis. Eerie, playfully sexual, and coyly confrontational, the song has no precedent in the ’90s, and no antecedent. And “X-French Tee-Shirt” is the single. Sanely, no one bought it. No one bought Pony Express Record, either. The entire album is just as paradoxically weird, a shattered brick sheathed in silk, fluid in all the wrong ways and rigid in all the right ones.

Still, “X-French Tee Shirt” is not only staggering, it’s charming. Wedren is in full command of a searing self-commitment, and the rest of the band—including drummer Adam Wade, who had only recently joined Shudder To Think—performs with a casual, almost post-coital languor that’s intoxicating. It doesn’t hurt that Wedren is dead fucking hot—and that his throaty coo calls to the most decadent corners of the subconscious. Primal yet sophisticated, the song lapses into a hushed break only a minute and a half after it starts—a break from which it never recovers. The song winds up in a gradually magnified loop, trapped in a one-chord drone as Wedren croons a circular, nonsensical mantra (printed as a single word in the CD booklet for Pony Express Record):

“holdbacktheroadthatgoesothatheotherswaydowhatyouletmeinjustopourmedowntheirmouths”

He chants this stream-of-consciousness verse no fewer than nine times over the throbbing, three-minute coda, as the curtain slowly drops in the form of guitarist Nathan Larson’s stuttering squeals of feedback. Kurt Cobain proved that hammering a hook into the wall at the end of a song—as he does on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” among others—is a way to simultaneously mock and celebrate the way pop tunes are imprinted through repetition. As if in answer, “X-French Tee Shirt” simultaneously mocks and celebrates the way alternative rock had embraced that irony—and it did so without being ironic.

Jawbox, another Dischord-bred band, jumped to a major around the same time as Shudder To Think—and Wade even left the former to drum for the latter, making it hard not to compare the two. Their tandem bid for the big time was controversial in the underground, and history has been kind to their detractors. Neither group was remotely successful in translating its off-kilter sorta-punk into mainstream success. Both wound up being dropped by their labels, and both broke up by the end of the ’90s. But where Jawbox gave off a blue-collar, utilitarian vibe, complete with a blue-jeans-and-mechanic’s-jacket look, Shudder To Think felt downright baroque. (Even when Shudder To Think reunited this September and performed “X-French Tee Shirt,” the group still had a glint of that slinky swagger—dimmed just a little by the 20 years’ distance. In any case, it’s way better than the Incubus version.)

It’s no surprise, then, that Wedren and company wound up closing the ’90s—and its run as a full-time outfit—by contributing to the soundtrack to Todd Haynes’ 1998 hymn to ’70s glam, Velvet Goldmine. Nor that “X-French Tee Shirt,” like the rest of Pony Express Record, has been relegated to the status of cult favorite. It wasn’t ahead of its time; it sounds just as enigmatic all these years later. But for a brief moment in 1994, the world caught a glimpse of a parallel-universe version of alternative rock, one in which grunge was something to be scraped off one’s shoe, and punk was something far more daringly, jarringly romantic.

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