For over three decades, Craig Wedren has charted his own course, from Shudder to Think‘s artsy rock to his film and television scores to his restless, ever-evolving solo albums. He’s amassed a cadre of collaborators that would make anyone envious, including That Dog’s Anna Waronker and the legendary comedy troupe The State. He has also enjoyed great success as a film and television composer, having worked on the music for projects ranging from School of Rock to Wet Hot American Summer to the buzzy new drama Yellowjackets.
Wedren returns this year with The Dream Dreaming, his first solo album since 2017’s Adult Desire. This latest release is a bright, propulsive collection of songs that features beautiful string work from Paul Cartwright, who has also recently worked with Lana Del Rey and Olivia Rodrigo. Once again, he had a revolving door of collaborators, but the main collective for The Dream Dreaming included Isaac Carpenter, Mike Farrell, and Jherek Bischoff, and mixer Billy Bush. “It’s so sweet to have this community of friends and collaborators to get in the sandbox and make a mess with me,” Wedren said.
Post-Shudder to Think, Craig Wedren has released solo albums as they come to him since he has been quite busy with film and television work. This began while Shudder to Think was winding down, with the band recording the trip-hop-influenced soundtrack for the classic 1990s indie film High Art, which features a career-peak performance from Patricia Clarkson. Wedren spent the 2000s focused on soundtrack work and released Lapland, which features one of the catchiest songs in his canon, “Do You Harm”. He also released an extremely fun dance-pop record as BABY, which definitely deserves to be returned to streaming sites, and another solo album, 2011’s Wand. After that, soundtrack work was eating up his time and he needed to examine his habits to make time for writing new songs for himself.
“By around 2017, I was going hard in building up film and TV scores, so I started prioritizing working on my own stuff at night to create some balance,” he tells PopMatters. “That led to Adult Desire. Some of the projects come from me noodling first thing in the morning before The Judge enters the room, some of it comes from score work that wasn’t used.”
Like most of Craig Wedren’s solo work, The Dream Dreaming manages to simultaneously sound like nothing else he has done while also containing his signature whimsy with an endearing dollop of weird. As always, his operatic vocals are the main draw, and he sounds as singular and impressive as ever. Longtime fans have come to expect to be surprised with every release, and The Dream Dreaming is arguably his most engaging set of songs yet as a solo artist.
Lead single “Fingers on My Face” leans into electropop, with a gorgeous rush of a chorus that makes the listener long to have the type of love he describes. “You Are Not Your Feelings” is a ballad that recalls the more contemplative moments on Pony Express Record, while “Play Innocent” has an early 1980s electronic pop sound influenced by Dire Straits. “All Made Up” features Waronker and was inspired by a visit to his ailing father, who passed away in early 2020.
Several of the songs on The Dream Dreaming were previously released as a series of singles that were also meant to help him cut his chops as a director. “During Covid, I decided to do a singles series and to direct a video for each of them. I always wanted to start directing my own videos. Not that the previous videos were bad; I just really wanted to get my hands on the tools and use them. With everything shut down, I had the time to teach myself. I started writing to release a series of singles that were one-offs that could stand on their own. Eventually, it became obvious these songs were an album, and a poppy one at that.”
While the Covid shutdown pushed many artists into contemplative, sad, or angry spaces, Wedren’s new songs were some of the brightest, most accessible he had written. “I suppose that was also due to Covid,” he admits. “It wasn’t conscious, but my tendency is to find what isn’t being done and do that. Adult Desire has a quieter, more insular sound, but was written during a particularly intense time. And Shudder to Think always ran away from the herd, too.”
This time out, Wedren also knew he wanted to really focus on writing lyrics that were direct. “On some records, the lyrics are more phonetics-focused–how it sounds and sings rather than what it means. For Dream Dreaming, I knew I wanted it to sing well, read well, and sound good. I really worked on the lyrics for this one.”
“My lyrics have always tended to reflect what’s going on for me right then–work, relationships, the state of the world, family, friends, love, sex. These are the same concerns I’ve written about for my whole career. With each record, it’s like, ‘Here’s this year’s model.'”
Craig Wedren also understands the value of a memorable line. “The Rolling Stones, a band I totally love … in their mid-1970s era, a lot of lyrics are pretty lazy, but they do have some of the best one-liners. When we were making [Shudder to Think’s final album] 50,000 B.C., things were disintegrating in the band, and I was going through chemotherapy while we were recording. It isn’t the most coherent whole lyrically, it has some of my favorite one-liners. For The Dream Dreaming, I aimed to achieve a mix of both.”
Wedren’s Yellowjackets gig came about when friend Teddy Shapiro, who did the music for the Yellowjackets pilot, was not available when the show was picked up. “So Anna [Waronker] and I stepped in. We’d been looking for something darker and bloodier to do. Like many of the best projects, it came through friends.”
It was a welcome change from the comedy film and television he had become known for. “For a decade plus, it was mostly comedy that I was getting hired for as far as film and television. Of course, I’m happy to have the work, but in Hollywood, you get calls for the things that are most visible. I love comedy, but It was starting to feel a little disproportionate. The early soundtrack work, like High Art, was drama. New Amsterdam and Yellowjackets have given me some more balance and show a little more of the spectrum of what I want to be engaged in.”
Craig Wedren has an uncanny ability to create songs from different eras with ease, from the hilarious songs he contributed to Wet Hot American Summer to the more traditional pop songs he wrote for the indie romance First Love, Last Rites. Yellowjackets’ theme song, “No Return”, which plays over the opening credits, sounds like a more menacing Shudder to Think track.
Never one to sit still, Wedren has also recently started another project. “Flesh Car is an improvised music trio that’s surprisingly coherent. That feels like very creative live music, and everyone in the band is contributing and equally invested in the music.” His collaborators in this project are Bischoff and Jacob Richards. And he’s also a member of the Middle Aged Dad Jam Band, cranking out covers of classic rock hits with members of The State.
While a tour for The Dream Dreaming isn’t a given, Wedren wouldn’t rule it out. “I’m sure we’ll do something to celebrate the album release, but to do it right, there would need to be a significant demand for me to go on tour. I don’t like hiring a band, teaching them the songs, and having them just play without the investment in the material. I did take the Adult Desire songs on the road after reworking them to do solo, which is something I might work on for this one,” he said. Regardless, it is exciting to see one of indie rock’s most enduring talents return with one of his strongest collections of songs.
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of Shudder to Think’s major label debut, Pony Express Record, one of the standout records of the era. Craig Wedren has begun to explore getting the rights to the Sony records back so he can reissue them. “There isn’t a lot of bonus material because we always focused on the songs we wanted to put on the record, but there might be some demos or live material we could add on,” he said. For longtime fans, a re-release of two of the most daring and rewarding records of the 1990s would be enough.