Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thinking Pink

Sunny Day Real Estate
La Zona Rosa, 10/7

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the last time the proper Sunny Day Real Estate lineup mounted the boards. Three-quarters of the group reunited on two occasions, for two records under the original moniker without bassist Nate Mendel and one as The Fire Theft without guitarist Dan Hoerner. None of those records were very good. How It Feels to Be Something On and The Rising Tide marginalized Hoerner as a vocalist and writer while Jeremy Enigk attempted to integrate his new spiritual and musical interests into the core sound, not something that worked particularly well either in theory or in practice. The Fire Theft was shocking in its total lack of songs (save "Sinatra"), awkward orchestrations, and the dominance of guest guitar player Billy Dolan, who gave the antiseptic record's instrumentals its only bits of life.

What the current SDRE reunion tour reveals is that only all four players together can really make the music pop. Brilliant drummer William Goldsmith needs Mendel to make sense out of his disinterest in playing straight 4/4, ever. Enigk needs Hoerner's nonchalance to balance out his own tendency towards preachy pretentiousness. The guitarists need the complete rhythm section to support them, as neither is much of a pyrotechnic player on their own. Earlier tours without Mendel proved that the reputation of their influential debut Diary holds up just fine even with a mediocre ringer butchering the basslines. (Their lifeless contract-obligating live album, also.) The occasion for this regrouping is the reissue of both Diary and LP2 by Sub Pop, but it's the profile of the latter that will benefit most from its songs finally making it to the stage supported by all four of their composers.

Perhaps because they broke up without touring behind it, LP2 has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. The lyrics were never finished, and those that were audible range from the inscrutably poetic to complete gibberish. A generation of increasingly terrible bands have through secondhand sources picked up on the naked emoting and simple, circling two- and three-note guitar leads of Diary. Fewer, but better bands paid close enough attention to realize that the real secret to that album's massive impact was the imaginative and forceful playing of Goldsmith and Mendel. Almost no one has put the work in to decipher LP2, with its constantly shifting time signatures, upside-down dynamics (oh my, that lead bass on "Waffle"), and combination of totally ornamental vocals and dazzlingly articulate guitars.

Seeing the band reunited, it's clear that Sunny Day Real Estate were never even remotely emo. What they were, or at least what they were headed towards before Mendel's departure spoiled their momentum, was progressive hardcore. "8" wasn't so titled because it was a sequel to the first album's "7," but because it's in an 8/8 time signature (two measures of three, one of two). That song didn't make the setlist this time, sadly, but enough of LP2 did to warm the heart of the most embittered prog rock true believer. Hoerner's only playing two chords for all of "J'Nuh," but Mendel and Goldsmith completely reshape the foundation under him while Enigk simply froths. If Fugazi got really into the "Apocalypse 9/8" section from Genesis's "Supper's Ready" instead of dub reggae, they might have sounded like this.

It's terrific to hear them playing a new song this tour, and one that picks up as if they're on tour in support of LP2 (and entirely ignoring the worthless Rising Tide). The new tune has strong, assertive vocals from both guitarists (no breakup-anticipating mumbling) but the same constantly shifting rhythms that made LP2 so unique. Sunny Day Real Estate never went back down that road again, sadly, as Enigk became preoccupied with other concerns, Hoerner seemed to check out creatively, and Mendel disappeared to cash his paychecks from Dave Grohl. Were they to emerge next year with a new record, perhaps they could inspire a whole new subgenre in the 2010's that won't suck nearly as much as the one they can be partially held responsible for in the 90's.

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