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Shudder to Think: Still emo after all these years

November 3, 2008 |  9:36 pm

Shuddertothink2_3 When Shudder to Think took the stage at the El Rey on Saturday night, a devoted group of '90s indie rockers and die-hard post-punk fans gathered to pay homage to a band that was integral in defining an early form of emo (call it pre-emo) that informed their core musical taste.

The sound they came in search of was mournful, angular and math-rocky, its force known in empty spaces as much as waves of crashing guitar. Kids in the '90s informally called it "nautical rock" (the music was rhythmic and hypnotic, like a tide), and it has long since been replaced by its harder, more stadium-ready emo cousin in the form of bands such as Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco.

Still, those who wrote teen angst-ridden love letters to the sound of Shellac and Sunny Day Real Estate never stopped longing for the emo they once knew. That's why there were so many misty-eyed, smiling faces in the audience at the El Rey when Shudder to Think singer Craig Wedren launched into the first song of the evening, the trilling slice of nostalgia "Red House."

Wedren has mellowed over the years. Although no longer a twitching antennae of frantic energy, he still possesses one of the most original and captivating voices in rock. He sings in an operatic, slightly effeminate voice that bursts from his spare frame and reaches soaring, quavering heights before plunging to controlled lows and trailing off to a sonic whisper.

Rather than defining the band as washed up, the new mellowness has refined them -- given them perspective -- as if they too are looking back to a place in indie rock history that will never quite be recaptured.

As Shudder moved fluidly from song to song, Wedren, who looks amazingly good with a completely bald head and beefy sideburns, bantered easily with the audience and loosened up enough to bring back some of his odd hopping dance moves. At times the band sounded like a mix of Slint and the Dismemberment Plan, with Wedren sing-speaking cryptic lyrics with poetic resonance.

The high point of the night came when the band launched into a particularly heartbreaking rendition of the indie-lullaby "No Rm. 9, Kentucky" from "Pony Express Record." When Wedren belted out the haunting line "By 3 a.m. the pill bottle top will come undone" over and over again, it felt like a reminder and a dirge for a time when "emo" wasn't necessarily an insult and its acts were outsiders' music and not today's version of hair metal.

-- Jessica Gelt

Photo credit: Shudder to Think's MySpace page