After some singles this highly touted “emo” quartet immediately delivered this emotionally intense and hard rocking debut album. And though each instrumentalist stands out (especially drummer William Goldsmith) as being top notch, above all else it’s the high pitched, raw nerves exposed singing style of Jeremy Enigk that most makes Sunny Day Real Estate (SDRE) such a uniquely satisfying experience. The band dynamically plays to beautifully soft and explosively loud extremes, sometimes too much so, and the spiritual and at times highly vulnerable lyrics allow for a certain insularity. However, most of the songs explode into an epic expansiveness as well, and though the album’s ebb and flow can be exhausting, the band’s big (and at times quite grungy and/or psychedelic) sound often yields exciting results. The album peaks early with three superb songs: “Seven” is seen by many as the quintessential SDRE song and is an excellent example of the band's soft-to-loud dynamics, driving rhythms, and impossibly impassioned vocals and improbably catchy choruses, while “In Circles” is notable for its memorable riffs and for alternating soft passages with a shouted sing along chorus, and “Song About An Angel” starts slow but ultimately surges with a Smashing Pumpkins-esque power. Musically this song features more emotional and oddly hooky vocals alongside powerhouse drumming (Goldsmith typically shines on even the lesser songs), while lyrically this song showcases the band’s religious bent, though song titles such as “47” and “48” also reveal a cryptic nature. Still, the band are actually at their best at their most accessible; the melodic, anthemic riffs that propel "47" (the best of the rest which rivals the first three songs) and the pretty, melodic verses and surging, singable choruses that enhance "Shadows" are standout examples of this. Elsewhere, on “The Blankets Were The Stars” and “Sometimes” the music goes from pretty to incredibly intense, with Enigk really letting ‘er rip. Alas, a few songs either thrash about overly excitedly or come and go unremarkably, making Diary a very good rather than great album. Had the band further given in to their (often quite pretty) pop instincts, it's possible that commercial success (rather than indie idolatry) could have been achieved.
LP2 (Sub Pop ’95) Rating: B
The band's trademark intensity is again all over LP2 (also known as The Pink Album), but something's missing this time (memorable songs, mostly). Given the band's breakup soon after this album's release (caused in large part due to Enigk's intense immersion in Christianity), I suppose it's safe to say that the recording sessions were fraught with tension, and I wonder if this album was rushed out before it was finished to everyone's satisfaction. After all, some songs end rather abruptly, the sound is somewhat murky at times, and at a mere nine songs this album doesn't give fans much bang for their buck. The band again juxtaposes pretty guitar passages with grungier eruptions, and again they're good at both styles, but after several listens I'm hard pressed to remember a single song, though most of them sound impressive enough while listening to them. From a lyrical standpoint, it's often hard to make out the words let alone understand their meaning, as perhaps the lyrics were as patched together as the music. Still, these mostly low-key songs are solid, and Enigk alone is worth the price of admission (provided you're a fan, as he seems to be one of those love him or hate him types). However, I'd be hard pressed to name any highlights, and the more focused albums that surround it are much more impressive, making LP2 an album that's primarily for completists. Note: Enigk released The Return Of The Frog Queen in 1996, while Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel joined the Foo Fighters. SDRE regrouped in 1998 minus Mendel, who decided to stick with his far more lucrative Foo Fighters gig.
How It Feels To Be Something On (Sub Pop ’98) Rating: A
Expectations were high for this much-anticipated regrouping, and SDRE easily met them with this stunningly assured beauty of an album. Aside from the dramatic album opener “Pillars” nothing here immediately leaps out at you, nor does the album have quite the sweeping force of Diary, which likely disappointed some of the band’s older fans at first. However, though these at first similar sounding songs take longer to get to know, the ultimate end result is a much more mature (i.e. quieter, but in this case equally intense and still rocking) album that's wonderfully atmospheric. Former Mommyheads bassist Jeff Palmer acquits himself well in place of Mendel, while Daniel Hoerner’s melodic and inventive guitar textures and Goldsmith’s impressive drum splashes coalesce into sonically interesting shapes, helped by Enigk's varied vocals. Enigk sometimes strikingly goes falsetto - not that his voice isn't high-pitched to begin with - and his heavily accentuated voice even adopts an old tyme Elizabethan tint on occasion, as hints of his eccentric solo album appear. But the band also remembers to rock out with their own unique brand of arena ready bombast, while surprising touches like the carnival-esque keyboards that appear from out of nowhere on “Every Shining Time You Arrive,” the gorgeous "who turned the light on" vocal section on "100 Million," and the Eastern drone turned adventurous groove of “The Prophet” keep things sounding fresh and exciting. The band manages to maintain their trademark tension but without going overboard on the whisper-to-a-scream schizophrenia that had characterized past albums, as lush, symphonic soundscapes (created via an expanded instrumental palette that includes keyboards, strings, etc.) and stellar songwriting characterize this album instead. They're still not the hookiest band around, but most if not all of these songs will sneak up on you over time, as a compelling middle ground is reached, the band trading in some raw power for a subtle yet definite leap forward in musicality.
The Rising Tide (Sub Pop ’00) Rating: B+
Pared down to a 3-piece (exit Palmer stage left), “Killed By An Angel” starts things off with the album’s hardest rocking song, an anthemic effort that’s very much in line with the best of the band’s back catalogue. However, what follows is far from what most people expected, beginning with the melodic, easily digestible “One.” First of all, Enigk elects for a falsetto croon throughout the album and rarely shreds his vocal chords as in the past, though his voice certainly does soar at times. Additionally, lush lovelies like “Rain Song,” “Tearing In My Heart,” and the synthesizer-laden “Faces In Disguise” suggest nothing less than a melodic soft rock ensemble. Fortunately, the band works within this mellower style quite well, helped by a Lou Giordano production that smoothes over the band’s rough edges. And while many will no doubt suggest that the band has lost their edge, repeat plays reveals a strong set of songs that marks a further move towards moody atmospherics above rocking out (a move that had began with their previous album). The prog rock feel of songs such as “Disappear,” which sounds similar to Rush, and “Snibe,” with its vocoder vocals, will also have some people shaking their heads. However, I for one like Rush, prog rock, and both of these intensely grooving songs. Besides, we also get treated to the mystical introspection of “Fool In The Photograph,” the gorgeous title tune, and especially the epic ballad “The Ocean,” on which a positively inspired Enigk sounds as if he could conquer the world. Granted, “Television” is a silly pop song with some awful lyrics (“she’s in my head, like television”), but for the most part this album rewards the patient listener. This is because Enigk remains one of rock music’s most compellingly off-key singers, while his always-impressive bandmates produce a beautifully full-bodied sound throughout (another trio trait reminiscent of Rush). Yes, there are times when I miss the explosive power of Diary, and when I want to hear the best of everything the band has to offer chances are I’ll opt for How It Feels To Be Something On. However, The Rising Tide is another ambitious step forward in the band’s evolution as a more accessible outfit, and though it’s not as exciting as past triumphs it’s a new direction that’s well worth following. Alas, distribution problems prevented this album from really taking off, and the band subsequently broke up (again). Enigk, Goldsmith, and Mendel (basically the original version of SDRE minus Hoerner) then formed The Fire Theft, releasing a self-titled debut album in 2003.
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