I don't envy Craig Wedren one bit. Granted, he's done pretty well for himself recently, scoring films such as School of Rock and Wet Hot American Summer, writing the TV themes for Stella and Reno 911, and gigging around New York with Bright Eyes and his dance-pop unit, Baby. But as the former frontman of Shudder to Think, one of the most brazenly original rock bands of the '90s, Wedren faces some crushingly high expectations surrounding his solo debut. What's worse, his ex-bandmate Nathan Larson dropped the ball in 2001 with the bland Jealous God, a slap in the face to those of us who believed Shudder to Think was beyond reproach. Suffice it to say, there's a lot riding on Lapland.
Being listenable was never a Shudder to Think trademark, and when you first move in, life in Lapland is uncomfortably comfortable. Gone are the slanted guitar riffs and off-kilter time signatures that made Shudder to Think's Pony Express Record (1994) such a mindfuck. In their place, Wedren gives us backup singers, power chords and sparkly acoustic strumming. The biggest shocker is "Do You Harm," a sickeningly slick pop tune co-written by Jimmy Harry, whose resume includes hits for Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears. Wedren's powerful falsetto knocks the chorus hook out of the park, but it's still weird to hear a straightforward breakup lyric coming from the guy who once instructed us to "Stick a fish in a tattoo gun/ Watch what color ink comes out."
As poppy and inviting as much of Lapland is, Wedren hasn't ironed out the avant edges completely. Opener "Kingdom" never quite lets the listener settle in, constantly shifting between major and minor and placing a wordless falsetto break where the chorus is supposed to be. "Alone in Love" and "She Don't Sleep" wend their way through crooked song structures, only stopping to let us rubberneck at Wedren's primal vibrato. But Wedren saves his quirkiest writing for Lapland's lamplit centerpiece, "Fifteen Minutes Late." Its serpentine melody (in Lydian mode, of course) rides atop a simple acoustic backing that twists and expands before exploding in a stunning rock-star coda. Wedren intended the song for the next Shudder to Think album, and its organic perfection is all the proof you need that the band broke up too soon.
The rest of the album finds Wedren trying his hand at accessibility, with mixed results. A number of these songs were destined for film projects, and you can hear Wedren's flamboyant voice trying to make something more of songs that are essentially meant as genre pieces. And that's Lapland's central dilemma - how to balance the freakish with the polite and still come off as its own thing. In many ways, Lapland is a continuation of the glammy pop direction that Shudder to Think was already taking with its final proper album, 50,000 B.C. (1997). Wedren sometimes follows that road a little too far, but there's enough genuine invention on Lapland to make the journey worthwhile.
Craig Wedren Web site
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