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Reviews: Polvo's "Heavy Detour" b/w "Anchoress"

Polvo's Heavy Detour b/w Anchoress single

Should I even use the word “reunited” in reference to Polvo anymore? Since their 2008 reformation, they’ve reworked their back catalog for live sets, released an excellent LP in 2009’s In Prism, and rather suddenly re-emerged with this single. Unlike a certain reunited band who’s remained in set-list stasis for eight years now, Polvo’s too restless to stand still.

“Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress” heralds the group’s as-yet untitled new album, due on Merge Records in an as-yet unannounced timeframe. The a-side, available for streaming here, splits the difference between the mid-tempo pace of Dave Brylawski’s three contributions to In Prism and the driving guitar loops of “Beggar’s Bowl.” Brylawski’s vocal melodies have improved, the energy level is up, and the presence of both sitar and electronic strings (reminiscent of Helium’s The Magic City) makes perfect sense. “Heavy Detour” bodes well for that upcoming LP.

Ash Bowie’s “Anchoress” takes a more ponderous route, exploring one of Bowie’s intractable, vaguely unsettling narratives with lyrics like “The seasons turn and she fashions a shrine / Arranging all the apples in symmetrical lines.” Lighthearted keyboards cut through the atmosphere, but the song’s keyed by its tense closing jam, which threatens to run long before a 45-enforced fade-out.

The alternate take of “Anchoress,” available as a digital download with purchase of the 7”, revisits the mid-fi production values of Polvo’s Today’s Active Lifestyles and Exploded Drawing. The noisy guitars are a welcome return to that era, especially when they recall the lurching of “When Will You Die for the Last Time in My Dreams.” While I’ve grown to appreciate the polish of In Prism and “Heavy Detour,” the grime of this alternate take of “Anchoress” fits the tone of the song better.

To return to my opening point, no, I should not use “reunited” in reference to Polvo’s post-2008 output. “Heavy Detour” b/w “Anchoress” isn’t a worthy pick-up because it’ll scratch your nostalgic itch; it’s a worthy pick-up because these two songs are excellent additions to a daunting discography. That’s past tense vs. present tense, and it’s time for more of Polvo’s reunited peers to join them (and Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, etc.) in the latter category.

Sunny Day Real Estate and the Jealous Sound at the House of Blues

Copyright Brian Tamborello

Sunny Day Real Estate’s first reunion back in 1997 was monumental news. Given their internet-based break-up just a few years earlier and their numerous idiosyncrasies (Jeremy Enigk’s conversion to Christianity, not playing shows in California, the Nordstrom ad, the pink artwork of LP2)—not to mention their profoundly affecting music—a wide swath of the indie world viewed How It Feels to Be Something On as the second coming, religious implications intended. I wasn’t nearly as charged. I had only recently gotten into Diary and LP2, so I’d missed out on that cycle of despair and joy. As such, my response to their reunion was malaise: I passed on the SDRE mk. II tours, waited a few years to get around to How It Feels and even longer to forget about The Rising Tide. Bassist Nate Mendel’s absence from the latter incarnation is mammoth—even with a slew of standouts on How It Feels, SDRE sorely missed his fluid basslines, as the rotating cast of stand-ins could never fill his shoes. The group later swapped guitarist Dan Hoerner for Mendel in the three-piece semi-reunion of The Fire Theft, but the songs were underwhelming. It’s hard not to wonder if their legacy was better off cloaked in the inscrutable mysteries of their would-be swansong, LP2.

Yet even with the missteps of The Rising Tide and its prog-rock fetishism, The Fire Theft, and Jeremy Enigk’s decidedly milquetoast recent solo albums, history has favored Sunny Day Real Estate over virtually all of their emo contemporaries. (Jawbreaker is the only other group on par from that era.) Diary and LP2 just received well-earned reissues from Sub Pop, further cementing their respective statuses as the epochal second-wave emo debut and its mysterious follow-up. These albums aren’t quite perfect—the former suffers from a sagging back-end, the latter occasionally confirms Enigk and Hoerner’s barely finished lyrics—but they hold up. Do the Get-Up Kids? Do Christie Front Drive or Mineral? Do the Promise Ring? The list could go on, spiraling downward into later groups and smaller fan bases, but there’s little point.* Those groups were indebted to Sunny Day Real Estate’s blueprint, but rarely lived up to it. Is the Promise Ring’s “East Texas Avenue” anything other than their SDRE homage? Weren’t the Appleseed Cast (originally named December’s Tragic Drive) ostensibly a SDRE tribute band on their first album? What prevented these groups from approximating the charge of “Seven,” “In Circles,” or “Rodeo Jones” wasn’t just inspiration, it was also talent. When Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith joined the Foo Fighters, it felt like a genius coup by Dave Grohl: steal the best bass player and the best drummer from the Seattle indie scene. So many 1990s emo bands took the amateur status of lo-fi indie rock to the next level by embracing sloppy vocals and ragged instrumentation as trappings of the genre, writing them off as you know, being so emotional. SDRE were straight professionials; Diary and LP2 confirm emo’s origins in Washington, D.C. hardcore groups like Rites of Spring by living up to that city’s emphasis on technical precision. No surprise that they shared a split single with Shudder to Think.

Where Sunny Day Real Estate falls into the recent slew of reunited acts is unclear at the moment. Their 1997 reunion was initially focused on the music—first the intended rarities album, then How It Feels—not the shows, although those certainly came around. The 2009 reunion started out as a promotional tour for the reissues and may blossom into a new record, as the group keeps hinting. There’s a number of comparative examples to cite: the Pixies reunited for the money, Shudder to Think reunited for the shows, Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., and Polvo reunited for the shows and then new material. Tossing aside the Pixies’ ongoing cash grab (Mendel’s making too much in the Foo Fighters to doubt his interest), SDRE is divided between the Shudder to Think and the Polvo paths. Will this tour end with a greatest hits live album or will the one new song multiply into a revitalized new album? Given how Shudder to Think played the Paradise and SDRE played the much larger House of Blues, SDRE has more encouragement to stick around, so my hopes for a new record might come true. Yet there’s no reason to continue if they don’t slay in concert, so this show was the first test of SDRE mk. III for me.

Considering how pervasive Sunny Day Real Estate’s influence was on mid-1990s emo, any number of second- or third-wave groups could’ve easily opened this show, which made the Jealous Sound a welcome selection. They’re not a groundbreaking or influential band, but a solid, melodic blend of late 1990s emo and catchy indie rock. Singer Blair Shehan formed the group after the dissolution of Knapsack in 2000, teaming up with Sunday’s Best** guitarist Pedro Benito and a shifting rhythm section, which may or may not still include former Jawbox/Shudder to Think drummer Adam Wade. Toning down the throat-shredding screams and dynamic range of Knapsack’s best songs (“Perfect,” “Courage Was Confused”) for a more polished version of their straight-ahead collisions of emo and pop-punk (“Skip the Details,” “Decorate the Spine,” “Katharine the Grateful”), the Jealous Sound’s first EP had a long stay in my discman back in 2000. Five songs, no filler, with three highlights: “What’s Wrong Is Everywhere” alternated between a big opening riff and a melancholy keyboard verse part as Shehan whisper-sung Sooyoung Park-style through his best melodies to date; “Priceless” added some needed urgency with a strafing solo and a circular chorus outro; and “Anxious Arms” threw major hooks out with reckless abandon over the half-time outro. When so many of their peers (The Promise Ring, the Get-Up Kids, Mineral, even Sunny Day Real Estate) were struggling with how to evolve without alienating their core audience of horned-rimmed emo kids, The Jealous Sound figured out how to polish their sound without losing their energy, ripping off U2, going prog-rock, or dabbling in indie-tronica.

Yet the follow-up LP, 2003’s Kill Them with Kindness, couldn’t match the EP. Maybe it was the push and pull from a major-label flirtation, but there’s a palpable weariness present. A decidedly subpar version of “Anxious Arms” suffered from a huskier Shehan vocal, the back-end of the record had a few snoozers, and the hooks seemed less natural and more forced. Just like the EP, there are three clear standouts: opener “Hope for Us” goes all-out with its enthusiastic “Oh-oh-oh” bridge vocals; the new wave keyboards of “The Fold Out” set up the racing drumming of its ending; and the album closer “Abandon! Abandon!” recalls the passionate strains of Knapsack. Yet three of twelve is a mediocre batting average at best.

What caused the delay between Kill Them and 2008’s Got Friends EP is unclear—this blog post insinuates that Shehan went crazy, the comments say that he tried starting a family—but the digital-only release was an odds-and-sods CD5 with two remixes of the title track. “Got Friends” is a nice enough pop song, but it’s a safe bet that no one on earth was pining for Jealous Sound remixes. This reunion turns this EP from a posthumous release to a stop-gap before a new album, which is supposedly underway.

Judging from their performance, Shehan and company seem reenergized, so I’m cautiously hopeful for the next album. They played the six highlights of their catalog, with the semi-screams of “Abandon! Abandon!” giving the set a much-needed edge and “Anxious Arms” closing their set on a high note. There’s a bit of the Hey Mercedes syndrome*** with Shehan’s rhythm guitar parts (staccato strums at the same tempo) and his Knapsack-style vocal strains need greater frequency (especially if they’re going to be so high in the mix), things I don’t expect to change, but reminiscing about circa-2000 post-emo will bring out the nitpicker in me.

To no surprise given the recent reissues of Diary and LP2, Sunny Day Real Estate did very little reminiscing about circa-2000 post-emo, or even post-1995 emo. Except for one song from How It Feels and their unnamed new song, the set was comprised of selections from those remastered albums, and I can’t argue with that decision. It felt less like crass promotion and more like a combination of nostalgia and revisionist history. “Remember when it was the four of us and we put out those two great albums? That sure was great, even if we didn’t appreciate it at the time. Let’s imagine all of the other stuff never happened.” That’s the rose-colored glasses version of their situation, sure, but there was no sense of SDRE sleepwalking through the classics like the Pixies did. (“Let’s play both versions of ‘Wave of Mutiliation,’ I mean, they want to hear them, right?”) SDRE played the classics, but they gave them the passion and respect they deserved.

Unlike Polvo, who essentially rewrote all of their old material for the new tours, Sunny Day Real Estate played the songs the way people knew them. The magic was remembering just how hard they rocked. My wife commented that SDRE was far more dude-rock than she remembered, which is certainly less the case on their later records (wait, is there anything more dude-rock than ripping off Rush?), but it’s hard to argue with how hard “Seven” hits, how the angular conclusion of “Theo B” recalls a Chavez riff factory, or how abrasive the chorus of “48” is. There are plenty of quiet moments, like the lilting ache of “Song About an Angel,” the gentle push of “Sometimes,” the verses of “Grendel” and “47,” and the graceful open of “Guitar and Video Games,” but all of those songs have big rock payoffs, too. Virtually every song made me appreciate it more, not an easy task considering my fondness for their albums. The new song (“10”) felt a bit breezier than its peers in the verses, but the chorus was excellent. This horrible YouTube clip of it will have to tide you over until its eventual release.

Not to take away from Dan Hoerner’s visible joy or Jeremy Enigk’s strong vocal performance, but there was no doubt who stole the show. William Goldsmith is an absolute joy to watch, combining the precision of proper posture drummers like the Dismemberment Plan’s Joe Easley, Juno’s Greg Ferguson, and Shiner’s Tim Dow (my favorite type of drummer to watch) with an absolutely ferocious attack for every fill. I remember seeing him on Saturday Night Live playing with the Foo Fighters and thinking “Damn, what a great drummer,” but he’s even better when he’s playing his own material. Apparently he had some issues later in the show, having to bail on LP2 bonus track “Spade and Parade,” but that’s the danger in giving it your all and then some.

It’s impossible not to mention the two unintentionally hilarious moments of the evening. First, Nate Mendel sounded downright bored during the verses of the lone How It Feels song, “Guitar and Video Games,” plodding through the root notes like he was carrying an albatross. He’s a downright great bass player—he was on Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense, after all—but don’t expect any more How It Feels songs to nudge their way into the set list without significant reworking. Second, Dan Hoerner had a spotlight during the jagged chord slashes of the elongated outro to “J’Nuh.” I laughed out loud at its appearance; I could imagine Hoerner thinking, “I love being back in this band, but this is what you guys get for keeping me out of the Fire Theft.” Less amusing was the inevitable encore for “In Circles,” but it’s not like I left early out of principle. My only other complaint was the absence of “Rodeo Jones” and “8,” two of my favorite songs from LP2, but I imagine the group still views those songs as leftovers to some capacity. But what leftovers!

Revisiting these songs made me realize just how far emo has come. Today’s popular emo groups do not emulate the obfuscated poetry of Enigk or his growling falsetto abstractions, and thinking of his vocal performance from “48” somehow filtering its way to modern rock radio brought a smile to my face after the show. Nor do they have the DC chops of Enigk, Hoerner, Mendel, or especially Goldsmith. If this tour, this reunion is about rebuilding their legacy, restarting the group from when they were last unquestionably great, it could have the potential of rebranding the whole genre? Associating emo with great songwriting, inspired performances, and technical precision as opposed to black fingernail polish and horned-rim glasses would be a good thing, right?

* For the sake of argument, I’ll vouch for Castor (who I usually lumped in with Midwestern rock like Shiner rather than emo contemporaries like Braid), a greatest-hits array from Braid, a handful of Knapsack songs, the similarly Midwestern Boys Life, and the key emo groups from DC. From this decade only Cursive (Domestica, Burst and Bloom, and The Ugly Organ) and the Casket Lottery (Survival Is for Cowards) stand out, although I’m not exactly devoting hours of my time to finding new, hip emo bands. There are probably other groups depending on your scope of the genre, but so many of the definite emo acts of the era have aged terribly. See: The Promise Ring.

** Sunday’s Best’s “Sons of the Second String” was so much better than anything that made it to their Polyvinyl debut LP, Poised to Break, that they earned the bitter irony of its title.

*** Hey Mercedes had a few great songs, especially “Bells,” but seeing them in concert a handful of times before their first LP stressed just how similar all of their songs were in tempo, guitar rhythm, and drumming starts and stops. It’s my go-to example for diminishing returns.

New Artillery Twitter (with bonus new Polvo song)

Against the wishes of my team of advisers, I’ve decided to start a record-reviewing Twitter account. Given that this site has become ridiculously verbose—my Record Store Day post for The Haul is nearly 3000 words and I still need to finish discussing a few records before posting it—limiting myself to 140 characters (including artist name, album name, and release year) should be a nice change of pace. Its updates soon be crammed into the sidebar, but feel free to follow me and talk trash about the twenty words I use per album.

As penance for joining Twitter at this stage of its life cycle, here is the first shots from Polvo’s upcoming In Prism album, set for release in September on Merge. “Beggar’s Banquet” juxtaposes a dreamy guitar loop with some unusually upfront, fierce riffage, suggesting that Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski have been taking the cream and the clear since 1997’s Shapes. Those riffs might be a holdover from Brylawski’s Black Taj albums, but the song’s polish is strangely unfamiliar to the creaky, mid-fi confines of Today’s Active Lifestyles. Bowie must’ve been saving up this ballsy vocal performance for years. Its ultimate build-up doesn't sound like Polvo, but I'd listen to whatever band it does sound like. (Edit: the other site switched over to "Beggar's Banquet.") The jury’s still out on this song, but I’m still looking forward reviewing In Prism on Twitter.

Hum, The Life and Times, and Dianogah at the Double Door

Jay Ryan's poster for the 1/1/2009 Hum concert

Considering that the only bands I see nowadays—seemingly, at least—are groups that I loved in high school (Polvo, Shudder to Think) that have reformed out of some combination of nostalgia and profit, adding Hum to that list shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Hum’s been doing these semi-reunions every two to three years since they officially went on hiatus with a New Year’s Eve show 12/31/1999. They played Furnacefest in 2003 (with a warm-up show in Champaign) and Rockfest in Champaign in 2005, so the two shows at the Double Door were right on schedule. The surprise, however, is that I was scheduled to be in Chicago for these performances. I had assumed that Hum would only play shows when I was firmly planted in the east coast, whether visiting family or moving there for graduate school. I was initially afraid that I’d missed my opportunity by waffling on the $65 New Year’s Eve show until it had sold out, but the addition of more manageable New Year’s Day show for $20 made my prior hesitation easier. I was going to see Hum for the first time in almost eleven years.

The only other time I saw Hum was at Irving Plaza in New York City in February of 1998 as a seventeen-year-old junior in high school. As we drove to the Double Door, my wife asked me what I thought of that show and I laughed, because it’s impossible to look back at that show with any semblance of a critical mindset. Getting to see my favorite band at seventeen was all shock and awe. Heroic Doses and Swervedriver opened up for Hum and I remember absolutely nothing about their sets. What I remember is the push of the billowing mosh pit, the thrill of hearing those songs live, the ringing in my ears from not wearing earplugs, and seeing Bush’s Gavin Rossdale and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani as we waited outside of the club to meet the band. Tim Lash’s guitar tone? Matt Talbott’s live vocals? Bryan St. Pere’s fills? Beats me.

While I still count them as one of my favorite groups, it’s been years since I’ve listened to Hum almost exclusively. I’ll save the details of my full-blown Hum obsession and its passing for a pending article on You’d Prefer an Astronaut, but the short version is that I still listen to their last three albums from time to time, but not on a daily basis like I did in high school. (Sorry Fillet Show.) As frustrated as I was with the eleven-year wait, it did help my recharge my potential enthusiasm and/or nostalgia for the concert.

The openers for both shows were quite familiar for any Hum fan who kept track of their touring partners. Dianogah’s opening set displayed their progress since 1997’s As Seen From Above. Still channeling largely instrumental double-bass math-rock, Dianogah added some flair with female vocals on a few songs, accompanying guitar or keyboard on others, and a few aggressive songs that presumably were from their newest LP, the nigh-unpronounceable Qhnnnl. I’m tempted to pick that one up to bolster my copies of Battle Champions and the Team Dianogah 2 Swedish single, but I opted to pick up the Bird Machine posters for both evenings from poster guru and Dianogah bassist Jay Ryan.

As excited as I was for seeing Hum, I would have been just as psyched for a Shiner reunion (a group I saw eleven times in six cities, or, in other words, the anti-Hum), but catching Allen Epley’s The Life and Times again was a fine alternative. Their shoegaze-meets-math-rock aesthetic loses some detail in the live setting, but the songs from their forthcoming Tragic Boogie LP (coming out on Arena Rock Records in April) came across well. I missed hearing a few of my favorite songs from Suburban Hymns like “Mea Culpa,” “A Chorus of Crickets,” and “Muscle Cars” this time, but at least they played the excellent “The Sound of the Ground” from the Magician EP. Look for them on tour in the spring when their album comes out.

With a seemingly endless string of Rush songs between sets, I began to wonder if Hum was playing an elaborate joke on the audience. But once the smoke machine started up and the house lights dimmed down to a blue glow, Hum came out to enthusiastic applause and launched into “Isle of the Cheetah.” It didn’t take long for the first coordination hiccup to hit, but once the song’s intro passed and it hit overdrive, they were back on track. Tim Lash’s leads were spot-on in this song and throughout, and he even added some flourishes. Immediately I was struck by how metal the guitar tones sounded, especially Lash’s guitar, but that influence was always present during his tenure in the band. Everything else was as I remembered it: Talbott’s nerdy vocals bursting out with emotion on “The Pod,” Dimpsey’s solid bass lines, and Bryan St. Pere’s forceful drumming. I don’t remember Talbott being quite so funny at the Irving Plaza show, but the numerous Centaur shows I caught during college were as memorable for his stand-up bits as the actual songs.

The set represented their final three albums equally, with “Iron Clad Lou,” “Pewter,” “Shovel,” and “Winder” from Electra 2000, “The Pod,” “Stars,” “Suicide Machine,” “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” and “I Hate It Too” from YPAA, and “Isle of the Cheetah,” “Comin’ Home,” “Ms. Lazarus,” “Afternoon with the Axolotls,” and “Green to Me” from Downward Is Heavenward, plus the unreleased rocker “Inklings.” I was a bit surprised to hear the throat-scraping screams of “Pewter” and “Shovel” in concert, but the encore of “Winder” was an absolute thrill. I could gripe about “Little Dipper,” “Dreamboat,” “Pinch & Roll,” and “Diffuse” being absent from the set list, but the arc of the night worked well, with the main set ending with the extended outro jam on “I Hate It Too” (marred slightly by Bryan St. Pere losing his place for a few bars) and the encore ending with a rock-solid rendition of “I’d Like Your Hair Long.”

The best part of the evening was remembering just how great those songs are, whether it was the thunderous drum salvo that launches “Iron Clad Lou” into gear, the churning bass line of “Winder,” the guitar coloring for the mid-tempo “Suicide Machine,” the quiet intro of “I Hate It Too,” or the Cadillac-selling riff of “Stars.” Talbott’s lyrics are still wonderful, especially on the You’d Prefer an Astronaut, and it’s easy to overlook a few musical missteps along the way with that set list. Unlike some of the other reunited bands that I’ve seen, Hum never went away for long enough to forget the muscle memory of how to perform those songs or to lose the passion for playing them, so they’re essentially the same band put into cryogenic freezing.

It’s still somewhat astonishing that I finally made it to one of these shows. While I’d be thrilled if Hum released new music or at least recorded a studio version of “Inklings” and put it out as a single, the odds of either of those things happening are nil, so I’m glad that I could add something to my lingering super-fandom. I’ll just have to remember to be in Illinois in 2011.

Shudder to Think and Pattern Is Movement at the Paradise

Photo gallery from this performance

The only time I’d seen Shudder to Think or, more specifically, a member of Shudder to Think was at a Girls Against Boys show at the Mercury Lounge in early 1999. I saw Craig Wedren at the bar while on my way to the merch table and stopped for a second in a “Should I talk to you or leave you alone?” moment of panic. Being an awe-struck eighteen-year-old at the time of show, I opted for the latter option. I’ve occasionally regretted that decision, knowing that whatever I would’ve said—“Pony Express Record is one of my favorite records of all time! Could you make a sequel to it?”—would be an embarrassing admission from my inner fanboy, but other times I’m happy that I left Wedren in some higher rock star altitude.

The idea of a Shudder to Think reunion was never outrageous—Wedren and Larson are still touring musicians, the break-up wasn’t acrimonious, their best music isn’t dated—but my excitement was dependent upon the reunion’s focus. I admittedly lost some interest with 50,000 B.C., which I haven’t pulled out in years, and only dabbled in their soundtrack work. Their post-STT work is similarly disappointing—only a few songs from Wedren’s tepid Lapland and half of Larson’s Hot One debut have grabbed my attention. Clearly, their musical focus has changed since the epochal Pony Express Record, so which Shudder to Think would I get?

The opening band helped answer this question. I hadn’t previously heard Pattern Is Movement, but add them to this Spin article tracing the influence of Shudder to Think in modern and/or independent rock. (Deftones? I thought Chino pulled all of his effeminate vocal styles from Smiths records.) The Dead Science’s broken glam/goth-rock is the closest relative on that list to PIM’s marriage of operatic vocals, vintage organs, choir samples, and powerhouse drumming, but how exactly they seem influenced by STT differs. Whereas The Dead Science—the one time I saw them, at least—extracts Craig Wedren’s vocal register and some of their guitar dramatics, PIM pulls from the most outré moments on Pony Express Record, like the seemingly shapeless middle section of “Trackstar.” Even with busy, forceful drumming, the vocals floated above the arrangements in frequently incomprehensible operatic phrases. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the genial members couldn’t quite induce a convincing sing-along on a cover of Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” or their own set closer. I respect the originality of Pattern Is Movement’s music (and their pro neck-beards), but like The Dead Science before them, it’s another instance of pulling the stranger elements from Shudder to Think and leaving the hooks behind.

Stealing a peak at Shudder to Think’s set list for the evening eased most of my fears—it would not be an evening of songs from High Art. Only one soundtrack song (“The Ballad of Maxwell Demon”) and two from 50,000 B.C. (“Call of the Playground” and “The Man Who Rolls,” which was cut), but six from Pony Express Record (“Hit Liquor,” “Gang of $,” “9 Fingers on You,” “Earthquakes Come Home,” “X-French Tee Shirt,” and “No Rm. 9, Kentucky”), four from Get Your Goat (“Love Catastrophe,” “Shake Your Halo Down,” “Pebbles,” and “She Wears He-Harem”), four from Funeral at the Movies (“Chocolate,” “Day Ditty,” “Lies about the Sky,” and “Red House”), and three from Ten Spot (“Rag,” “Jade-Dust Eyes,” and “About Three Dreams”). I typically don’t stress too much about set lists, but aside from wanting to hear the rest of Pony Express Record—I would’ve paid another $25 to hear “Chakka,” “Kissi Penny,” “Sweet Year Old,” and “Trackstar” as a second encore—their ability to recognize the best songs from their back catalog is impressive. I yelled for “Chakka,” but as I learned at the Juno reunion shows, if they didn’t rehearse a song, they’re almost certainly not going to play it, especially with new members in tow.

The Boston show marked the end of this “version” of the reunited Shudder to Think, with 50,000 B.C. drummer Kevin March giving way to Pony Express’s Adam Wade for their upcoming west Coast swing. Original bassist Stuart Hill opted out of the reunion, so Jesse Krakow was recruited as a replacement along with guitarist Mark Watrous. I understand the reticence involving bands reuniting with replacement members, but I’m happy with Wedren, Larson, and either March or Wade (although I would’ve preferred Wade, since he wrote the drum parts for Pony Express Record). While there were some telltale signs that this was, in fact, a reunion concert—Craig Wedren’s earpiece for the first half of their set, Wedren only playing guitar on every other song, Nathan Larson’s difficulties with his amp, the rhythm section getting a bit disjointed near the end of “X-French Tee Shirt,” those two guys onstage that I’d never seen before—Wedren’s stage presence and Larson’s guitar more than made up for any hiccups.

Whenever he wasn’t tethered to a guitar, Wedren hopped around the stage with surprising energy. He didn’t appear to have aged a day from the “X-French” video shoot. Larson, looking less like a glam-rock star and more like a communist insurgent, soldiered through those technical difficulties and sounded fantastic on the strafing lead guitar of “Gang of $.” Most of the stage banter was light, with Wedren trying to recall which girls inspired his earlier songs or joking that McCain was behind Larson’s amp difficulties. (Even with this approachable banter, I still left the club without haranguing Wedren with my decade-old anecdote. I’d rather maintain some of that awe, I suppose.) Wedren commented before “No Rm. 9, Kentucky” that the set felt very “punk rock,” an accurate statement that the dynamic “Kentucky” briefly refuted, but the low-key encore finished off the change, closing the night with the blissed-out “Day Ditty.”

The overall performance sat closer to the rejuvenated Polvo concert from this summer than the going-through-the-motions Pixies concert I attended back in 2004, but unlike Polvo, Shudder to Think didn’t revise their old songs or play new ones. They played their best songs and played them well, which was enough for the obsessive fans in the audience, but not enough for me to get my hopes up about a permanent reunion with new material (which Pattern Is Movement seemed to imply might happen, but Shudder to Think themselves did not mention).

It’s unfortunate, given the strength of the performance, that the Paradise didn’t look remotely full until Shudder to Think went on, and even then it did not appear to be a sellout. I could chalk some of this issue up to evening’s competition, since Les Savy Fav were playing over at the Middle East downstairs, the New Year was at the Middle East upstairs, the Feelies’ reunion show at the Roxy, and the Red Sox playoff game on television, but the truth might just be that Shudder to Think’s core fanbase hasn’t expanded like other reunited bands’ fanbases (Slint, Mission of Burma) have. Was this reunion too early? Did 50,000 B.C. turn off too many fans? Do Pony Express Record and their Dischord LPs not carry the proper cachet in today’s hipster enclaves? I overheard enough stories of people driving from nearby states or flying (from Scotland!) to know that the true devotees still care, but I’d hoped that more people had developed my awe of Shudder to Think since their initial demise. Even with that Spin article tracing their influence, I can’t think of any recent bands that have pulled off Shudder to Think’s blend of pop instincts and avant-garde tendencies in such an approachable package.

Polvo at the Middle East Downstairs

Along with Pavement, Seam, Rodan, and Archers of Loaf, Polvo pushed me further and deeper into indie rock obsession during high school. Naturally, all of them broke up before I moved off to college, thereby preventing me from the hit-or-miss experience of a vintage Polvo show, but their current reunion / reformation finally rectified that situation. There’s something about their music that seems particularly tantalizing in a reunion context, since they were too fidgety and strange as a band to trot out the greatest hits and leave it at that (see: Pixies). Not that they don’t have greatest hits—“Feather of Forgiveness,” “Vibracobra,” “Can I Ride,” “Every Holy Shroud,” “Gemini Cusp,” “Tilebreaker” and a number of others immediately come to mind—but I had no idea what they’d actually play and even less of an idea of how they’d play it.

New Radiant Storm King (photos here) seemed like an appropriate opening act, since I mainly know of them courtesy of a split single they did with Polvo back in 1994. This show was the first time I’d actually heard them, however. Their genial banter was a good fit for their 1990s-styled indie rock, although in a strange twist the songs from their next record sounded better than their older material. I’ll check out that record whenever it comes out and catch them again the next time they play Boston.

Birds of Avalon blended drifting psych-rock and cocksure 1970s hard rock with promising results as the middle act. Some of the psychedelic aspects felt too aimless, like they simply ran out of meaty riffs to fill the songs, but I can see them putting together a cohesive show and/or album in the future.

In an interview about Polvo’s upcoming shows, bassist Steve Popson calls it a “reformation” rather than a reunion. I hadn’t seen this comment before the show at the Middle East, but damn if it doesn’t make a ton of sense in retrospect. I’ve listened to Polvo’s albums—well, maybe not Shapes*—enough to sleepwalk through every note with ease, but Polvo (photos here) threw obstacles in my path at every turn. Switching drummers to Brian Quast brought more heft to the songs, but also forced the rest of the band to relearn and, in many cases, rewrite the old songs. Some songs, like the encores of “Tragic Carpet Ride” and “Fast Canoe,” stayed relatively true to the originals, but “Fractured (Like Chandeliers)” and “Every Holy Shroud” took pleasure in casting aside their old structures. (Note: the linked clips are to various reunion performances; I only took pictures of the Boston show.)

Each guitarist sang one new song, with Dave Brylawski’s contribution sounding like a restrained version of one of his Shapes tracks and Ash Bowie’s recalling more of the Exploded Drawing era, and I think there might’ve been a new instrumental track. Given the proliferation of new material within the old songs, like an alien bridge section of “Every Holy Shroud,” it’s hard to tell where truly new material started and where improvisation of old material ended. The set list also included “D.D.S.R.,” “Bombs That Fall from Her Eyes,” “Thermal Treasure,” “Title Track,” and “Feather of Forgiveness,” but nothing from Cor Crane Secret.

It’s unclear whether they’ll record a new album this year, but this reformation should certainly be filed alongside Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. in the worthwhile category. I’m rarely as afraid of my peers that a reunion will soil a band’s legacy, since I’m not all that concerned about critical legacies affecting my personal enjoyment of a group, but I was surprised that seeing Polvo reformed made me appreciate them more.

* Side note: After I took a picture of a distant set list so I could zoom in and read the titles more easily before they started playing, the guy behind me asked if I could read the list. After I started relaying song titles, he decided he didn’t want to know, so I said, “Oh, they’re actually just playing all of Shapes.” He said, “I wouldn’t mind that.” This is why I don’t make friends at rock concerts.