It seems every music fanatic has at least one: a game changer. A band or album that slapped them upside the head, jarred them from complacency, shocked them into a different way of hearing or a different way of thinking. We’ve read the stories, about how, either through words that spoke to them in a way no one had spoken to them before or through an arrangement of sounds that were nothing like they had ever heard before, their internal worlds were forever changed.
My biggest game changer to date has been Shudder to Think. In 1994, I was heavily into Jeff Buckley and made a point of listening to the artists he covered and the artists he noted as favorites. Jeff had good, eclectic taste, and one of his well-documented favorites was Shudder to Think. S2T’s fifth studio album, Pony Express Record, was newly-released, and their video for “X-French Tee Shirt” was getting some play on MTV. It sounded weird to me. It was jagged and aggressive with frequent time changes and unconventional melodies. I had no idea what to make of it. I couldn’t even determine if I liked it or hated it. I wanted to hear it again.
Eventually, I bought Pony Express Record, and the whole album was a revelation. Everything that was contained in “X-French Tee Shirt” was on show, spread around and turned up. The album was pointy and electric and psychotic. It was, at turns, creepy, frightening, obscene, sexy, clever, ugly, beautiful. It was invigorating, and my mind opened up to what music could be in a way it hadn’t been since I first heard Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Pony Express Record cemented for me the idea that, while music could also go on just being fun and simple, it was important for music to move forward, open out, shake up, swallow whole and regurgitate as a new entity.
I went on to become a big fan of S2T in the short time they had left as a band at that point. I had the pleasure of seeing them live at Bimbo’s in San Francisco thirteen years ago this month. It was the day before or day after my birthday (my memory is fuzzy at best), and I got birthday hugs from Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson, who are two of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. While the band has since dispersed to their own projects – with a reunion in 2008 – with varying degrees of success, S2T is still one of my favorite bands and Pony Express Record still serves as a mental measuring stick for me for all other music.