Craig Wedren is, perhaps, a poster child for rock ‘n’ roll versatility and pop-star enigma. From Column A, he is a celebrated veteran of the HarDCore scene in the Nation’s Capital—the front-man for Shudder to Think on Dischord Records. Column B, his band signed with a major label and—no doubt about it—made pop-rock of a tuneful variety that was virtually devoid of screaming and atonal thrashing. Back in Column A, he currently leads a genre-defying band of obscure coolness (Baby), but—Column B—he is an A-List film score composer whose work is known from mainstream hits like School of Rock. (Yes, I am aware that I put “A-List” in Column B. That’s the point—this stuff is all mixed up!)
Wedren, in short, is too cool to be huge yet too good to be marginalized.
His first solo release is called Lapland. Shudder to Think and Baby fans will recognize Mr. Wedren’s haunting tenor—a voice that croons with falsetto beauty but also cuts through the rock clatter with some considerable ease. Though Shudder to Think was often called a punk band (its Dischord/MacKaye cred worn, as they say, sleevishly), Mr. Wedren’s voice is the furthest thing from a shriek, and on Lapland it is put in gorgeous context.
The instrumental accompaniment here is about as gentle as rock comes—mostly undistorted arpeggiated guitars and bass, drums as often played with brushes as with sticks, and plenty of pretty minor and major seven chords. My mother would note—“You can understand the words when he sings! I like that!” Lapland features more than its share of ooohing background vocals and choruses that reach for poignant or bittersweet feeling. In short, while never a “folk”-styled work, it qualifies without much effort as a singer-songwriter album.
Check out “Do You Harm”, which starts with a smartly strummed acoustic guitar. Craig plaintively sings, “Drove my love to the river tonight / Top down, radio up / Watched the full moon shiver in the water / Headlights shimmer above.” Maybe it couldn’t be a Cat Stevens song, but no one would flinch if Sheryl Crow covered this song. But even on a gently tuneful track like this one, Mr. Wedren’s pop-rock instincts are too utterly sure to allow the song to be soft or flabby. “And then love drops dead,” he intones. “My heart is cruel / My love’s a foolish song / And my head is so strong / I didn’t mean to do you harm.” The lyrics turn tougher and better, and the voice combines mid-range urgency with keening falsetto. But mostly, the chorus hook is so good that you’re humming it an hour later. Honestly, Sheryl Crow would be lucky to have such a hit on her hands.
And, ultimately, that’s what distinguishes Lapland—GREAT songs. “Wanna Drive” starts with a series of “oooh"s in a pungent three-note figure, then tersely tells a strange road story. “Fifteen Minutes Late” moves dramatically from a peeping Tom narrative to a self-meditation that never fails to be compellingly melodic. “Rain Diamonds” seems like a straight verse-chorus-bridge song at first, but then it proves to be more original and surprising, with evocative imagery and a chorus that hides, morphs, and reappears slyly. “Born Curious” uses a chugging rock bassline and a hiccupped Elvis chorus (“I’m so hot-for-her, heart so hyper / With a mouth born curious, it don’t mean a thing”) that melts away into four-part oooohs on the out chorus. These tracks—and quite a few more—are crafted like hits but performed and recorded in a way that leaves then plain enough not to seem calculated, cheap or glossy. Clocking in around three minutes each, Mr. Wedren’s pop confections aren’t oversweet or stuffed with Boston crème. Though tasty, they don’t seem like they’ll spoil a diet of indie-rock eccentricity.
The thrill of Lapland, in fact, is the way it suggests that relatively old-fashioned songcraft—the kind of harmony-rich composing that we associate with the Tin Pan Alley songwriters such as Hoagy Carmichael and even Burt Bacharach—can still work in a post-Nirvana world. Craig Wedren writes more than a few songs that seem like tiny pop symphonies (check out “She Don’t Sleep”, with its rhythmic stops and shifts, its lush backing vocals, its chiming guitar break, then its dead stop and restart halfway through) but that avoid the over-sheen and chrome-polished sparkle of the recent Steely Dan records. While Becker and Fagen place their lyrical smirks into fine-tuned Rolls Royces of sound, Craig Wedren’s elusive lyrics are encased in high-class music played without overstudied perfection. The combination works utterly.
If Lapland has a weakness, it may be its failure to deliver a dash of musical Tabasco—a straight rocker to contrast with the milder musical tastes primarily on the menu. The program amounts to a kind of high quality “chamber rock”—devoid of the “icing” of keyboards or saxophones or other fancy sweetening, but also devoid of any rocky rump-kicking that might clear the air before the next craft-driven pop song takes wing.
Such a quibble only clarifies that Lapland is short of being a classic while nevertheless being superb. It is the work of a craftsman and wide-ranging talent, a guy who lives and breathes music in several different contexts and who, here, stakes a claim as a new kind of singer-songwriter. Most bands would trade their favorite amps to have a fifth of the melodic strength of Craig Wedren. The listener gets all that melody merely for the price of a CD on a remarkably small label.
Here’s to the musicians who haven’t forgotten how to pack so much into three minutes—may they forever find a way to make a living despite prevailing tastes. Craig Wedren, his own man, delivers with assurance on Lapland