J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Return Trip: Sunny Day Real Estate - Diary

Sunny Day Real Estate
(Sub Pop ; 1994)

Tonight's review posits this question: How well does a genre-defining album hold up, more than a decade after, when that genre has become a hollow husk, a waste, a punch-line to a joke?

Thus, Diary. Is there a more emo band, a more emo-sounding album title, a better epitome of the crazy, out-of-control, ill-defined, silly genre of emo? And yet, it all started so innocently. Follow me back to those halcyon days.

In 1994, a band like Sunny Day Real Estate really was something new. We're talking melodic, confessional and loud - think Husker Du with some occasionally quiet moments. And seriously, Sunny Day were loud. I didn't see them until their tour for their final album, The Rising Tide, but when they launched into "In Circles," it was one of the loudest concert moments in memory for me.

Diary opens with a song that summarizes a sound that would probably be best typified later in the ensuing years by At the Drive-In. "Seven" is propulsive, layered with intricate, visceral drumming, a thick guitar sound and Jeremy Enigk's soaring vocals. The album's production has held up pretty well - only nearly fourteen years or so really have passed since the album was recorded, but the sounds of songs like "Seven" have, very obviously, been repeatedly hijacked and recorded in better and better environments over the years. If you're coming to Sunny Day for the first time only now, in 2008, you're going to have to set aside the context of the years following 1994.

The album is nothing if not a pretty consistent piece of work. "Round," "Shadows" and "48" all exemplify the quiet, loud, quiet mode of songwriting that has dominated the last 20 or so years of indie-rock. There are moments of artistic tangent though. "47" is another blueprint song, sounding like the proto-version of hundreds of "modern-rock" ballad songs. The bridge makes the song sound like a contemporary of the oft-overlooked Failure (which, technically, it was), but the lead line that introduces the song and soars through the chorus imagines a million guys with long, dirty hair stretching their arms out in crucifix poses as they sing about emotions and stuff into the sky. "Phuerton Skeurto" uses a small, circular piano line to underscore Enigk's vocals - an almost circus-music vibe courses through the piano, and this song actually foreshadows a little of Enigk's debut solo album that would come during Sunny Day's hiatus in the mid-90s.

So, that last paragraph had me believing for a second that my answer to the initial question - has the record held up? - is a resounding no. I hate that the resulting legacy, which the band has no control over, would affect my opinion. But maybe it's that the first album wasn't that good to begin with. Maybe Diary is just an overrated, over-talked record that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

But then there's "In Circles." Easily the best song on the record, possibly the highlight of Sunny Day Real Estate's entire career, and one of the most breathtaking live performances I've ever seen, "In Circles" is the song that makes a record. It turns a middling, proto-emo album of fairly solid rock and roll into a more than bearable triumph of sincerity and beauty and just melodic noise. It's the second track on the album and it sets the bar so unbelievably high that you stick around for the rest of the album just to see if it gets that good again. It doesn't, but its radiance casts a glow over the rest of the album that you aren't able to shake. And ultimately that may be what rescues Diary from the emo trashbin of music history.

Rating: Diary - E(xcellent) / I(nteresting) ; "In Circles" - A(udiophilic)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Judge For Yourself:

Sunny Day Real Estate - "Seven"

Sunny Day Real Estate - "In Circles"

Sunny Day Real Estate - "48"

Purchase Diary from Amazon.

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  • At 6:50 PM, March 02, 2008, Blogger erik hogstrom said…

    I have been listening to SDRE all day today -- something about the gloomy skies overhead made me wistful for Jeremy Enigk's anguished wail.
    My opinion is that "Diary" holds up very well indeed after all these years.
    In truth, all of the Sunny Day Real Estate copyists are the ones who have lost their luster.
    Actually, when the skies get REALLY gloomy, that's when I grab for "The Pink Album."

  • At 11:01 PM, March 02, 2008, Blogger J. Neas said…

    "In Circles" aside, I probably prefer LP2/"The Pink Album" to this one. So I'm with you on that.


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