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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.