Sunny Day Real Estate
Dairy (Remaster), 180G Black Vinyl 2LP
Whether it's lifelong softies like Jimmy Eat World, strident scream machines such as Thursday, or over-their-heads windbags in the vein of Angels & Airwaves, critspeak about bands with roots in emo usually dictates the following career path: Hang with Fat Mike all you want, call us when you're ready to sound like U2. It's an easy narrative to set up, maybe because it requires fewer keystrokes than the more correct comparison: Sunny Day Real Estate.
It's got nothing to do with churches of reverb or Christianity, though those would come later for SDRE. Taking the longview, SDRE seem even less of their time than they were in the mid-90s, positioned between the more stone-faced acolytes of Fugazi and the branches of Jade Tree that went mathletic or simply stuffed as many proper nouns as possible into radio-intended pop-punk (see: songs called "Anne Arbour"). SDRE saw beyond the constraints of "scene" and envisioned a point where the meek would inherit the arena--- independently minded, sensitive boys doling out anthems of introspection to thousands of fist-raising, navel-gaving kids. With a hotly anticipated fall tour coming, Sub Pop has reissued the original lineup's only two records, which reaffirm what those swiftly sold-out shows already made pretty clear: a lot of people love these guys, and rightfully so.
What immediately strikes you about Diary is it doesn't sound intended to be a gamechanger-- even if it's no surprise that one of emo's most enduring documents is called Diary of all things. But even if it doesn't break new ground musically, it signaled a new way to talk about the passion. The quicksilver time-changes and jangly-but-not-collegiate guitar chords show nods to Dischord, but it's the terse yet tender delivery of the lyrics from Jeremy Enigk that ultimately drew people in. "The waiting could crush my heart/ The tide breaks a wave of fear," okay, fine-- this kind of stuff inspired a whole lot of heartfelt word salad from far less talented sadsacks, but "Seven" still is one of those great album-starters, written like they had to win you over in five minutes or it would be their last song.
Immediately after, the insistently ringing two-note riff that opens "In Circles" portents something every bit as excitable, but to this day, I still find myself genuinely surprised as it folds into a half-time dirge. It's quite possibly the definitive SDRE song, since it's here where you hear their signature trick: Enigk is often content to softly nudge verse melodies, but the choruses are something else entirely. If the harmonies were prettier, it could be straight-up pop; if they were yelled, it might be punk. Here, it simply hits a sweet spot for people who were into shows for the community, but also to meet potential dates. The rangy, disarmingly ramshackle "Song About an Angel" nearly equals it during its six-minute run.
If Diary has a reputation of being front-loaded, it can't be in the pejorative sense: bands can and have spent entire careers ripping those three songs off over and over again. For a while, I thought Diary happened to be an album whose importance exceeded its quality-- thanks to some unfortunately (or unavoidably) dated production, if nothing else. That's been remedied to good extent on this remaster-- "The Blankets Were the Stairs" no longer sounds as grounded by its granular grunge tones, and the drums sound less bogged in Green River sludge. Elsewhere, classic rock guitar heroics are more prevalent than Pac NW grunge: certainly in the memorable riffs from "47" and "Round", and "Shadows" played the shadow-and-light game better than any of their peers who were just dying to be compared to Led Zeppelin.
Despite Diary's success, SDRE had a pretty uncomfortably defined relationship with their audience as well as themselves, so the follow-up proved to be a knottier affair, and not just because it's widely known as either Sunny Day Real Estate, LP2, or The Pink Album. The songs themselves didn't get any shorter or less intense, but they feel significantly less edified. When the charmingly animated video for "Seven" ran on "120 Minutes", it never felt too out of place regardless of whether it led into Jawbox or Pearl Jam, but LP2 tended to veer more towards the obscure. It certainly didn't help that the packaging itself contained no artwork other than its entirely pink cover or lyric sheet. And compared to Diary's untouchable opening triad, that of LP2 was bound to pale, and you feel like SDRE is playing it overly self-aware-- "Friday", "Theo B", and "Red Elephant" each would've been the shortest track on Diary, save for its near-interlude "Phuerton Skeurto". "Friday" starts LP2 with the kind of risky, slippery melody that all but screams "difficult follow-up." The high-wired guitars of "8" introduce damn near atonality, the kind of chords an amateur bangs out on a piano, but soon they become the backbone of the record's most muscular number.
It's easy to project the idea that this was a band dissolving personally and musically from the inside-out if you know the history, but the music itself is every bit as ghostly on its own-- even beyond the threadbare arrangements, Enigk has said that many lyrics were left unfinished or sung as gibberish. LP2 certainly has more than its share of moments, but in the context of SDRE's artistic arc, a time when they wanted to be Shudder To Think instead of arena-fillers can feel like a bridge to nowhere.
And that was pretty much it for the classic lineup of SDRE-- the rhythm section would play on Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape, a record whose brickwalled dynamics and gleaming-edge guitar arguably did just as much to determine the actual sound of modern radio rock as Sunny Day or even producer Gil Norton's work with the Pixies. Meanwhile, Enigk would put more emphasis on mysticism than mystery for 1998's amber, glowing How It Feels to Be Something On and 2000's divisive swan song (to this point) The Rising Tide. Some saw Tide as a natural culmination of Enigk's sonic ambitions and lyrical specificity, while others took Return of the Frog Queen and "Rain Song" in tandem and wondered when the fuck this guy turned into Rick Wakeman. Either way, it certainly deserved better than to be tethered to Time Bomb Records, which would shortly cease to exist after the release of The Rising Tide.
Sure, the B-sides will generate some interest amongst die-hards, but as is the case with the recent Radiohead reissues, the sort of fans that would buy a Sunny Day Real Estate album twice probably are more than familiar with, say, "The Crow". But really, it might just be in the vein of so many rereleases that are meant as a reminder or a call for rediscovery-- in some circles, SDRE is Pavement, or MBV or any of the other 1990s legends you might care to mention, but a huge difference of perception is that most of their acolytes, despite making great records, are just too damn earnest to be fashionable. Or maybe it's just that Sunny Day Real Estate's influence is more conceptual than musical, and if that's the case, it's been so fully adapted into modern rock (emo or not) that it's not so much innovative as it is timeless. -Pitchfork (Best New Reissue)