The ones that nearly got away: Shudder to Think, Pony Express Record
On paper, Pony Express Record by Shudder to Think ought to be an album I adore. It has complex rhythms, angular melodies, dissonant riffs and lots of distortion. It even arrived at time in my life when modern classical music started occupying my wheelhouse.
But for many years, I could muster at most an intellectual appreciation for the album. Something about it prevented me from internalizing it the same I would music by, say, Wayne Horvitz or Meredith Monk.
Part of the problem was the fact I never paid for it — Pony Express Record was an assignment for the student newspaper. I listened to the promo and found the album had potential. Because I didn’t discover it the way I did with Jayne Cortez or Bang on a Can, I didn’t feel invested in my opinion.
And because I was a snob where avant-garde music was concerned, I couldn’t take Shudder to Think too seriously. Just what were their bona fides anyway?
That ambivalence meant Pony Express Record would not survive a purge for cash. I don’t even know at what point it left my collection.
But it has always nagged at me. I felt I was missing something about that album, something that made it difficult to dismiss.
I’ve tried at different times after subscribing to Google Play Music to give Pony Express Record another shake, but my attention would drift, and it would end without my realizing I had it been playing.
When I spotted a copy at Lifelong Thrift Store for $1, I welcomed it back into my collection, and I gave it the attention I couldn’t afford it in the past.
As it turns out, my inability to embrace Pony Express Record comes down to my tolerance for odd, angular music — which is pretty high. For all its weirdness, Pony Express Record sounds quite normal to me.
I call this my Beck affect. When Beck released Odelay, critics couldn’t stop tripping over themselves to praise his whiplash cuts. I thought it was just poorly-executed John Zorn card pieces.
Pony Express Record is strange, but it’s not the strangest thing I’ve heard. It doesn’t stop it from being a good album, even an important one.
Shudder to Think made a loud, noisy album that relies on precise musicianship to pull off. Rather than dial up the metal influences of grunge the way nü metal bands would eventually do, the band made the punk influences veer into something a whole lot brainier. And they do it while throwing in an occasional hook over mountains of crunchy distortion.
I’m a lot more familiar with Pony Express Record now, and I’m OK with not being able to hum more than a few measures of “Hit Liquor.”