By Jim Schutze
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Jeremy Enigk is much shorter than he sounds. On the string of records he made as the leader of the mythmaking (and now defunct) Seattle outfit Sunny Day Real Estate, the singer-guitarist used his distinctive singing voice--a high, reedy croon that can swivel from angelic to tortured on a single syllable--to try to connect a then-developing style of indie rock called "emo" back to the magisterial pomp of classic-rock warhorses like Led Zeppelin and the Who. Diary, Sunny Day's scintillating 1994 debut, has been dropped countless times in recent years as a reference point by guitarists in emo bands indebted to SDRE guitarist Dan Hoerner's alloy of arpeggiated sparkle and power-chord crunch. Yet the genre's current reliance on vocal dramatics of the angelic-and-tortured variety suggests that Enigk's singing has influenced younger musicians at least as much as his former bandmate's playing.
So when Enigk ambles into a nearly empty Italian restaurant on the edge of Manhattan's Gramercy Park, it's almost surprising to see that the prematurely balding owner of those remarkable pipes isn't 7 feet tall--that in fact he looks as though he'd probably sound more like Will Oldham or James Taylor than anyone particularly galvanizing. (Drummer William Goldsmith ambles in with Enigk, but he's just as tall as his muscular, propulsive drumming intimates.) The two men are in New York to promote The Fire Theft, the self-titled debut album by a new band made up of three-fourths of SDRE: Enigk, Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel, who makes a handsome living holding down the same job in Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters. (Goldsmith was also a Foo for that band's first two albums but left to reconcentrate on Sunny Day, making room for Alanis Morissette's old drummer Taylor Hawkins, the slapstick-comedy buddy of Grohl's dreams.) The trio formed the new group after touring in support of The Rising Tide, the album SDRE released in 2000 through the Arista-distributed Time Bomb Recordings following a departure from longtime home Sub Pop.
"We'd played our last show with Sunny Day--we didn't know it was gonna be the last show--in Lincoln, Nebraska," Goldsmith explains. "We went home, and we were gonna do a European tour, and then we finally found out that our label had been dropped by Arista, so they were having a hard time, which in turn made things sort of difficult for us. So we weren't sure what was gonna happen next." He shares a look with Enigk. "But even if there weren't label problems, Jeremy and I had made this decision to start fresh. We just wanted to sort of start over--a different band, just leave the past behind us."
"With Sunny Day," Enigk adds, "it was 10 years of trying to do something over and over again, and the same issues just kept on coming up. And I think it just got to the point where we had to kind of break away from that idea and from certain interpersonal feelings, to try to be as subtle as possible." Both Enigk and Goldsmith allude to conflicts with Hoerner, though neither will go into great detail about it. Goldsmith describes having "five-to-seven-hour conversations" with Enigk over a period of months about SDRE's future in their basement rehearsal space in Seattle, which finally yielded a result: "Pretty much the same day that we decided to quit Sunny Day," Enigk says, "we formed the Fire Theft. It was just a matter of taking the actions."
Considering that charged emotional crucible (and guitarist Hoerner's absence), The Fire Theft is unexpectedly similar to Sunny Day's music: Songs like opener "Uncle Mountain" and the grungy "Rubber Bands" continue to balance emo's fragile rhythmic attack with the melodic bluster of vintage AOR (with added guitar filigree from 5ive Style/Heroic Doses ace Billy Dolan), and Enigk is still in fine, dramatic voice, channeling Robert Plant in "Chain" and bringing a gentle lilt to the lovely waltz-time ballad "Summertime." The Rising Tide's much-discussed prog tendencies get further play, too--"Oceans Apart"'s atmospheric keyboard intro is (barely) souped-up Rick Wakeman, and "Waste Time" gleams with the icy menace of "Owner of a Lonely Heart"--but the occasional whiff of overworked hokum is offset by the lightness of touch in "Houses," another lovely waltz-time ballad in which Enigk declares, "The sun warms my mind/The moon cools my toes," over a wistful guitar chime any Brian Wilson-worshiping indie-pop shut-in could love. Goldsmith and Enigk readily acknowledge the similarities between the two groups--and the fact that since SDRE basically broke up and re-formed between each of its albums ("More like every other album," Goldsmith insists), forgiving fans could probably accept The Fire Theft as a new Sunny Day record.
"It really is more or less the same band, but without Dan we're completely different," Enigk says. "I mean, he was a very strong writer in Sunny Day, lyrically and musically, and you can really tell. It was odd to find that out: 'Oh, wow, I have to fill in this heavier side to back up William's heaviness that Dan always filled in.' And I wasn't and still am not quite sure how to do that, so we're still kind of discovering our sound. I mean, half this album was written for the next Sunny Day album. We got together for a week and jammed recently, with all three of us, and just started to tap into areas that might potentially be our new sound." He considers for a second.
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