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Sunny Day Real Estate and the Jealous Sound at the House of Blues

Copyright Brian Tamborello

Sunny Day Real Estate’s first reunion back in 1997 was monumental news. Given their internet-based break-up just a few years earlier and their numerous idiosyncrasies (Jeremy Enigk’s conversion to Christianity, not playing shows in California, the Nordstrom ad, the pink artwork of LP2)—not to mention their profoundly affecting music—a wide swath of the indie world viewed How It Feels to Be Something On as the second coming, religious implications intended. I wasn’t nearly as charged. I had only recently gotten into Diary and LP2, so I’d missed out on that cycle of despair and joy. As such, my response to their reunion was malaise: I passed on the SDRE mk. II tours, waited a few years to get around to How It Feels and even longer to forget about The Rising Tide. Bassist Nate Mendel’s absence from the latter incarnation is mammoth—even with a slew of standouts on How It Feels, SDRE sorely missed his fluid basslines, as the rotating cast of stand-ins could never fill his shoes. The group later swapped guitarist Dan Hoerner for Mendel in the three-piece semi-reunion of The Fire Theft, but the songs were underwhelming. It’s hard not to wonder if their legacy was better off cloaked in the inscrutable mysteries of their would-be swansong, LP2.

Yet even with the missteps of The Rising Tide and its prog-rock fetishism, The Fire Theft, and Jeremy Enigk’s decidedly milquetoast recent solo albums, history has favored Sunny Day Real Estate over virtually all of their emo contemporaries. (Jawbreaker is the only other group on par from that era.) Diary and LP2 just received well-earned reissues from Sub Pop, further cementing their respective statuses as the epochal second-wave emo debut and its mysterious follow-up. These albums aren’t quite perfect—the former suffers from a sagging back-end, the latter occasionally confirms Enigk and Hoerner’s barely finished lyrics—but they hold up. Do the Get-Up Kids? Do Christie Front Drive or Mineral? Do the Promise Ring? The list could go on, spiraling downward into later groups and smaller fan bases, but there’s little point.* Those groups were indebted to Sunny Day Real Estate’s blueprint, but rarely lived up to it. Is the Promise Ring’s “East Texas Avenue” anything other than their SDRE homage? Weren’t the Appleseed Cast (originally named December’s Tragic Drive) ostensibly a SDRE tribute band on their first album? What prevented these groups from approximating the charge of “Seven,” “In Circles,” or “Rodeo Jones” wasn’t just inspiration, it was also talent. When Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith joined the Foo Fighters, it felt like a genius coup by Dave Grohl: steal the best bass player and the best drummer from the Seattle indie scene. So many 1990s emo bands took the amateur status of lo-fi indie rock to the next level by embracing sloppy vocals and ragged instrumentation as trappings of the genre, writing them off as you know, being so emotional. SDRE were straight professionials; Diary and LP2 confirm emo’s origins in Washington, D.C. hardcore groups like Rites of Spring by living up to that city’s emphasis on technical precision. No surprise that they shared a split single with Shudder to Think.

Where Sunny Day Real Estate falls into the recent slew of reunited acts is unclear at the moment. Their 1997 reunion was initially focused on the music—first the intended rarities album, then How It Feels—not the shows, although those certainly came around. The 2009 reunion started out as a promotional tour for the reissues and may blossom into a new record, as the group keeps hinting. There’s a number of comparative examples to cite: the Pixies reunited for the money, Shudder to Think reunited for the shows, Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., and Polvo reunited for the shows and then new material. Tossing aside the Pixies’ ongoing cash grab (Mendel’s making too much in the Foo Fighters to doubt his interest), SDRE is divided between the Shudder to Think and the Polvo paths. Will this tour end with a greatest hits live album or will the one new song multiply into a revitalized new album? Given how Shudder to Think played the Paradise and SDRE played the much larger House of Blues, SDRE has more encouragement to stick around, so my hopes for a new record might come true. Yet there’s no reason to continue if they don’t slay in concert, so this show was the first test of SDRE mk. III for me.

Considering how pervasive Sunny Day Real Estate’s influence was on mid-1990s emo, any number of second- or third-wave groups could’ve easily opened this show, which made the Jealous Sound a welcome selection. They’re not a groundbreaking or influential band, but a solid, melodic blend of late 1990s emo and catchy indie rock. Singer Blair Shehan formed the group after the dissolution of Knapsack in 2000, teaming up with Sunday’s Best** guitarist Pedro Benito and a shifting rhythm section, which may or may not still include former Jawbox/Shudder to Think drummer Adam Wade. Toning down the throat-shredding screams and dynamic range of Knapsack’s best songs (“Perfect,” “Courage Was Confused”) for a more polished version of their straight-ahead collisions of emo and pop-punk (“Skip the Details,” “Decorate the Spine,” “Katharine the Grateful”), the Jealous Sound’s first EP had a long stay in my discman back in 2000. Five songs, no filler, with three highlights: “What’s Wrong Is Everywhere” alternated between a big opening riff and a melancholy keyboard verse part as Shehan whisper-sung Sooyoung Park-style through his best melodies to date; “Priceless” added some needed urgency with a strafing solo and a circular chorus outro; and “Anxious Arms” threw major hooks out with reckless abandon over the half-time outro. When so many of their peers (The Promise Ring, the Get-Up Kids, Mineral, even Sunny Day Real Estate) were struggling with how to evolve without alienating their core audience of horned-rimmed emo kids, The Jealous Sound figured out how to polish their sound without losing their energy, ripping off U2, going prog-rock, or dabbling in indie-tronica.

Yet the follow-up LP, 2003’s Kill Them with Kindness, couldn’t match the EP. Maybe it was the push and pull from a major-label flirtation, but there’s a palpable weariness present. A decidedly subpar version of “Anxious Arms” suffered from a huskier Shehan vocal, the back-end of the record had a few snoozers, and the hooks seemed less natural and more forced. Just like the EP, there are three clear standouts: opener “Hope for Us” goes all-out with its enthusiastic “Oh-oh-oh” bridge vocals; the new wave keyboards of “The Fold Out” set up the racing drumming of its ending; and the album closer “Abandon! Abandon!” recalls the passionate strains of Knapsack. Yet three of twelve is a mediocre batting average at best.

What caused the delay between Kill Them and 2008’s Got Friends EP is unclear—this blog post insinuates that Shehan went crazy, the comments say that he tried starting a family—but the digital-only release was an odds-and-sods CD5 with two remixes of the title track. “Got Friends” is a nice enough pop song, but it’s a safe bet that no one on earth was pining for Jealous Sound remixes. This reunion turns this EP from a posthumous release to a stop-gap before a new album, which is supposedly underway.

Judging from their performance, Shehan and company seem reenergized, so I’m cautiously hopeful for the next album. They played the six highlights of their catalog, with the semi-screams of “Abandon! Abandon!” giving the set a much-needed edge and “Anxious Arms” closing their set on a high note. There’s a bit of the Hey Mercedes syndrome*** with Shehan’s rhythm guitar parts (staccato strums at the same tempo) and his Knapsack-style vocal strains need greater frequency (especially if they’re going to be so high in the mix), things I don’t expect to change, but reminiscing about circa-2000 post-emo will bring out the nitpicker in me.

To no surprise given the recent reissues of Diary and LP2, Sunny Day Real Estate did very little reminiscing about circa-2000 post-emo, or even post-1995 emo. Except for one song from How It Feels and their unnamed new song, the set was comprised of selections from those remastered albums, and I can’t argue with that decision. It felt less like crass promotion and more like a combination of nostalgia and revisionist history. “Remember when it was the four of us and we put out those two great albums? That sure was great, even if we didn’t appreciate it at the time. Let’s imagine all of the other stuff never happened.” That’s the rose-colored glasses version of their situation, sure, but there was no sense of SDRE sleepwalking through the classics like the Pixies did. (“Let’s play both versions of ‘Wave of Mutiliation,’ I mean, they want to hear them, right?”) SDRE played the classics, but they gave them the passion and respect they deserved.

Unlike Polvo, who essentially rewrote all of their old material for the new tours, Sunny Day Real Estate played the songs the way people knew them. The magic was remembering just how hard they rocked. My wife commented that SDRE was far more dude-rock than she remembered, which is certainly less the case on their later records (wait, is there anything more dude-rock than ripping off Rush?), but it’s hard to argue with how hard “Seven” hits, how the angular conclusion of “Theo B” recalls a Chavez riff factory, or how abrasive the chorus of “48” is. There are plenty of quiet moments, like the lilting ache of “Song About an Angel,” the gentle push of “Sometimes,” the verses of “Grendel” and “47,” and the graceful open of “Guitar and Video Games,” but all of those songs have big rock payoffs, too. Virtually every song made me appreciate it more, not an easy task considering my fondness for their albums. The new song (“10”) felt a bit breezier than its peers in the verses, but the chorus was excellent. This horrible YouTube clip of it will have to tide you over until its eventual release.

Not to take away from Dan Hoerner’s visible joy or Jeremy Enigk’s strong vocal performance, but there was no doubt who stole the show. William Goldsmith is an absolute joy to watch, combining the precision of proper posture drummers like the Dismemberment Plan’s Joe Easley, Juno’s Greg Ferguson, and Shiner’s Tim Dow (my favorite type of drummer to watch) with an absolutely ferocious attack for every fill. I remember seeing him on Saturday Night Live playing with the Foo Fighters and thinking “Damn, what a great drummer,” but he’s even better when he’s playing his own material. Apparently he had some issues later in the show, having to bail on LP2 bonus track “Spade and Parade,” but that’s the danger in giving it your all and then some.

It’s impossible not to mention the two unintentionally hilarious moments of the evening. First, Nate Mendel sounded downright bored during the verses of the lone How It Feels song, “Guitar and Video Games,” plodding through the root notes like he was carrying an albatross. He’s a downright great bass player—he was on Juno’s A Future Lived in Past Tense, after all—but don’t expect any more How It Feels songs to nudge their way into the set list without significant reworking. Second, Dan Hoerner had a spotlight during the jagged chord slashes of the elongated outro to “J’Nuh.” I laughed out loud at its appearance; I could imagine Hoerner thinking, “I love being back in this band, but this is what you guys get for keeping me out of the Fire Theft.” Less amusing was the inevitable encore for “In Circles,” but it’s not like I left early out of principle. My only other complaint was the absence of “Rodeo Jones” and “8,” two of my favorite songs from LP2, but I imagine the group still views those songs as leftovers to some capacity. But what leftovers!

Revisiting these songs made me realize just how far emo has come. Today’s popular emo groups do not emulate the obfuscated poetry of Enigk or his growling falsetto abstractions, and thinking of his vocal performance from “48” somehow filtering its way to modern rock radio brought a smile to my face after the show. Nor do they have the DC chops of Enigk, Hoerner, Mendel, or especially Goldsmith. If this tour, this reunion is about rebuilding their legacy, restarting the group from when they were last unquestionably great, it could have the potential of rebranding the whole genre? Associating emo with great songwriting, inspired performances, and technical precision as opposed to black fingernail polish and horned-rim glasses would be a good thing, right?

* For the sake of argument, I’ll vouch for Castor (who I usually lumped in with Midwestern rock like Shiner rather than emo contemporaries like Braid), a greatest-hits array from Braid, a handful of Knapsack songs, the similarly Midwestern Boys Life, and the key emo groups from DC. From this decade only Cursive (Domestica, Burst and Bloom, and The Ugly Organ) and the Casket Lottery (Survival Is for Cowards) stand out, although I’m not exactly devoting hours of my time to finding new, hip emo bands. There are probably other groups depending on your scope of the genre, but so many of the definite emo acts of the era have aged terribly. See: The Promise Ring.

** Sunday’s Best’s “Sons of the Second String” was so much better than anything that made it to their Polyvinyl debut LP, Poised to Break, that they earned the bitter irony of its title.

*** Hey Mercedes had a few great songs, especially “Bells,” but seeing them in concert a handful of times before their first LP stressed just how similar all of their songs were in tempo, guitar rhythm, and drumming starts and stops. It’s my go-to example for diminishing returns.