With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Dusty Henry delves into The Fire Theft's debut (and only) album on its 15th anniversary.
“I want love if love wants me,” Jeremy Enigk bellows over a rush of strings, chilling guitar chord chimes, and the haunting rhythm section of drummer William Goldsmith and bassist Nate Mendel. He lets the moment rest in the air before returning back again, belting even louder, “I want God if God wants me.” His voice cracks and splinters at the end of the lie, expelling the last of his energy, but saving enough to squeak out at the end “Just can’t hold on to what I believe.”
On paper, this description sounds like some sort of Sunny Day Real Estate b-side. The larger than life arrangements, the vaguely spiritual undertones, and the familiar names all coalescing into something larger than themselves. Yet this moment described above comes from “Uncle Mountain,” the first track from The First Theft’s debut (and only) album.
Sunny Day Real Estate’s story is one of always breaking up and getting back together. While the band has constantly shrugged at the assertion that they’re the “godfathers of emo,” the tumultuous and hushed behind the scenes relationships of the band almost feels like an emo song narrative in itself. After releasing their landmark debut Diary, the band would split during the recording of their second LP (often referred to as “The Pink Album”). Mendel and Goldsmith joined former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl’s emerging project Foo Fighters, although Goldsmith would exit the band after disputes with Grohl during recordings of The Colour and the Shape. It was an unceremonious end that would find Mendel keeping with the Foo Fighters. The band regrouped in 1998 sans Mendel to release How It Feels To Be Something On and carried enough momentum to release a final LP, The Rising Tide, in 2000 before calling it quits again.
The band has historically been tight-lipped about their falling outs. Critics and fans have continually been quick to note Enigk’s reinvigorated Christian faith during the Diary era as a point of contention between the lead vocalist and his bandmates. It’s a claim that the band continues to downplay, citing other personal issues as the main motivation for splitting up, but it certainly appears that it had an effect to some degree. Whatever the reasons, the band has constantly had trouble staying together. Between The Rising Tide and the band’s short-lived reunion in 2009 (which saw the band trying to record again, although the only material that’s ever surfaced is the “Lipton Witch” single which came out on Record Store Day 7-inch split with Circa Survive), fans were given a brief glimpse at what another Sunny Day record could have looked like with the newly formed The Fire Theft. But is that really what it was?
Notably, The Fire Theft doesn’t include Sunny Day guitarist Dan Hoerner – his righteous blend of beastly riffs and technical prowess are as pivotal to Sunny Day’s sound as any member of the group. It’s a curious move to carry on with a different name when Sunny Day recorded two albums without Mendel, and a clear answer hasn’t really emerged for the change other than the group wanted a “fresh start.” Fair enough from an emotional standpoint, but it’s a point that holds even more weight with a closer examination of the album itself. Post Diary and The Pink Album, Sunny Day found themselves expanding beyond the “emo” sounds they didn’t intend on creating, immersing themselves in the knotty arrangements of prog rock and wondrous experimental detours that would call back to the work of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But even as they sought after new directions, there’s still an unmistakable feel that connects those records that goes beyond just the players behind them. Of the many brilliant aspects of The Fire Theft, it’s their ability to create a new sonic realm to live in despite each member’s distinctive style that’s most fascinating.
While it’s odd to hear the group without Hoerner’s guitar bombast rattling through the speakers, the trio of powerhouse musicians tap into a stunning delicateness across The Fire Theft’s 13 tracks. Embracing ambient textures and lush arrangements allows the trio to flex different aspects of their strengths. Enigk’s voice continues to be an enigma. How he can have a voice so recognizable yet find new ways to contextualize it from Diary to the baroque pop of his first solo effort Return of the Frog Queen and the massively underrated OK Bear is continually impressive and this record is no exception. He moves breezily in a near falsetto on “Oceans Apart” and then flips to a monstrous force on “Chain.”
Mendel pens one of the catchiest bass riffs of his career with the wistful “Carry You,” rumbling underneath synth patches and laying the groundwork for his bandmates to flourish in an explosive chorus. Goldsmith, while not without his thunderous moments like on the rousing “Rubber Bands,” showcases his power in restraint throughout the record. He and Mendel gel together so seamlessly throughout the LP to establish the much of the stormy, grey atmosphere that permeates throughout the record. 10 years out from the explosive Diary, the band settles into some of their finest, quietest, and most dynamic moments with the piano-driven “Heaven.”
In the final moments of closer “Sinatra,” the band steps aside for six-minutes of ambient droning and glitching. It’s hard to pinpoint any band member to these hypnotic sounds, but that ambiguity sparks some of the most compelling parts of The Fire Theft. The band would continue to tease the prospect of new material for several years, but hopes of a new record were all but snuffed out after Sunny Day’s 2009 reunion. The elongated ambient swirls leave the album with a feeling of uncertainty, that it could carry on or pick back up at any moment. Although that never happens, it speaks to the enduring legacy of its creators. The Fire Theft and Sunny Day Real Estate will always be intertwined in history, with the former almost always being marked as a footnote of the latter. But there’s also a beauty to be had in taking The Fire Theft for just what it was – the union of three friends and musicians shirking off the past to create something fresh and new.
With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Dusty Henry delves into Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero for its 25th anniversary.
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