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In Circles: Sunny Day Real Estate Reconsidered

In anticipation of a reunion tour, the two albums produced by the original Sunny Day Real Estate lineup get remastered and repackaged with extra tracks and expanded liner notes. They are ripe for revisiting.

Sunny Day Real Estate

Diary (Reissue)

US Release: 2009-09-15
Original Release: 1994-05-10
Label: Sub Pop
UK Release: 2009-09-14

Sunny Day Real Estate

LP2 (Reissue)

US Release: 2009-09-15
Original Release: 1995-11-07
Label: Sub Pop
UK Release: 2009-09-14

Back in the '90s, few people would have believed you if you had claimed that in the coming decade, emo would be a multi-platinum selling enterprise. Sure, the so-called "emo" of today might have more in common with pop-punk than with the Revolution Summer but that's largely beside the point. That an obscure, long-dormant and wholly unfashionable sub-genre would experience a resurgence some two decades later is a curious occurrence, indeed, though not an entirely inexplicable one. In hindsight, it's plain to see that bands associated with the current, "third wave" of emo (as emo historians refer to it) were heavily influenced by emo's second wave, which was mostly confined to independent labels and small, Midwestern college towns in the mid to late '90s. In that sense, the emo bands of today all owe a stylistic debt to the two landmark albums that kicked off the second wave in 1994: Jawbreaker's 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and Sunny Day Real Estate's Diary.

While both of these records sewed the seeds for the emo revival to come, in many ways they can be seen as beating divergent paths. Rough-hewn, jagged and raw, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy married punk rock aesthetics with openly confessional lyrics -- though Jawbreaker would later refine their sound with Dear You, an album that presaged emo's coming embrace of tunefulness. Diary, meanwhile, was a sophisticated, ambitious, even pretentious affair. Though it aped the dynamics of post-hardcore -- the intricate, interlocking guitar lines, thundering percussion and start-stop dynamics -- it simultaneously took up ideas of virtuosity that were long considered the exclusive domain of prog-rock and classic rock fetishists. Where Jawbreaker defined the punk-leaning strain of emo that would eventually find mainstream success, Sunny Day Real Estate laid the groundwork for the movement's greatest artistic achievements. As such, their influence -- on indie-rock as a whole -- should not be underestimated. Fifteen years on, it's clear that numerous bands ranging from Braid and the Promise Ring to the Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie can count Sunny Day Real Estate among their predecessors.

Thankfully, as it stands today, Diary is more than just a historic document. The album has aged remarkably well -- one and a half decades worth of imitators have done little to dull its impact. The album's opening triptych, "Seven", "In Circles" and "Song About an Angel"--incredibly, the first three songs the band wrote together -- still comes barreling out of the gate with a momentum that's staggering. Like Nirvana, to whom they were often compared, Sunny Day Real Estate clearly worshipped at the altar of the Pixies, exploiting the loud/quiet/loud dynamic whenever possible. However, unlike Nirvana, Sunny Day often paired these dynamic changes with tempo changes, making turns on a dime like the D.C. post-hardcore bands they hoped to emulate. Thanks in large part to this trick, the songs on Diary aren't just intense, they're complex, inviting discussions of technique usually considered anathema in punk rock circles.

Then, of course, there's the band's most distinctive attribute: Jeremy Enigk's voice. In an age dominated by full-throated grunge crooners and raspy-voiced punks, Enigk's yearning, straining falsetto sounded unlike any other voice in indie-rock. Enigk has said that he wanted to sound like Shudder to Think's Craig Wedren, who boldly introduced a more effeminate vocal style to the post-hardcore scene. Yet, on Diary, it's clear that Enigk's voice is entirely his own. Though the band often took a simple, minimalist approach to penning lyrics, Enigk's voice imbues even the most basic couplets with palpable anguish and passion. Even if you can't understand the words (don't worry--you're not alone), the sentiment comes across loud and clear, thanks to Enigk's gentle coos, resigned mumbles and distressed screams.

As far as remastering jobs go, Brad Wood's revisions are fairly unobtrusive. He's cleaned up the record quite a bit but for the most part, the production gets out of the way and lets the songs do the talking. The chiming guitars on "In Circles" are now clear as day, cutting through the thick crunch of the verses effortlessly. William Goldsmith's drumming is as deafening as ever, though his snare hits now land with a satisfying pop. And Nate Mendel's snaking basslines, though seemingly nudged a bit lower in the mix on a few of the tracks, still keep the songs firmly grounded.

Following up a masterwork isn't a particularly easy task but things were especially difficult for Sunny Day Real Estate. The sessions for LP2 (or Sunny Day Real Estate or The Pink Album, depending on who you ask) commenced less than a year after Diary's release and the band, worn thin from months of touring and buckling under the pressure of mounting hype, began to come apart at the seams. When Sunny Day emerged from the studio in the spring of 1995, they were no longer a band. The resulting album, sardonically dubbed LP2 by Sub Pop, should have sounded like what it was: the cobbled-together fulfillment of a contractual obligation. Yet, somehow, the band had managed to craft a follow-up that, in many ways, stands as a worthy successor to Diary.

Likely knowing that they'd never be able to top Diary, Sunny Day Real Estate took pains to distinguish LP2 from its predecessor. Employing odd time signatures, inscrutable (and sometimes nonsensical) lyrics, restrained runtimes and more complex song structures, LP2 is the quintessential "difficult" follow-up to a much-hyped debut. Even so, it's an album that's at once inviting and mysterious, a lasting testament to the fact that Sunny Day Real Estate could run circles around other bands even while phoning it in. From the waves of fuzzed-out guitars on "Friday" to the dulcet tones of "Theo B", from Enigk's impassioned pleading at the close of "Red Elephant" to the crashing dynamics of "J'Nuh", LP2 stands as a lasting document of a band at the height of their powers. That Diary has aged gracefully is no great surprise--if there's a revelation to be found in these reissues, it's that LP2 now sounds every bit as influential as Diary does.

As far as reissues go, the extras that accompany Diary and LP2 are pretty meager. Each album has been padded out with two extra tracks and repackaged in a cardboard slipcase, replete with expanded liner notes. Diary gets appended with "8" -- which would later reappear on LP2 and sounds largely the same here -- and "9", a spiraling, six-minute epic that veers close to prog-metal territory. Meanwhile, LP2's bonus tracks, "Spade and Parade" and the uncharacteristically named "Bucket of Chicken", both sound lethargic and fairly generic. Clearly, the band was wise to reuse two leftovers from the Diary sessions -- "8" and "Rodeo Jones" -- when sequencing LP2.

The real prizes here, aside from the albums themselves, are the extensive liner notes, which go a long way toward contextualizing the records. Sunny Day Real Estate was always a secretive band, providing only a single, out-of-focus press photo, granting only one interview and refusing to play shows in the state of California (yet, inexplicably, posing for an advertisement for the Nordstrom chain of department stores). Through interviews with the band members, industry insiders and other musicians, the revised liner notes at last lay some of Sunny Day Real Estate's mysteries bare. LP2's liner notes are especially thorough, addressing the years' worth of rumor and speculation that have long defined the album (yes, some of the lyrics are gibberish and the album was turned into Sub Pop with no title, cover image or art direction, save for Goldsmith's recommendation to "Make it pink").

Though Enigk, Goldsmith and Dan Hoerner would reunite in 1997 and produce two more records under the Sunny Day Real Estate name -- the stunning How it Feels to be Something On and the divisive, prog-leaning The Rising Tide -- the original Sunny Day lineup would not reunite for some 14 years. Beginning this week, the original four-piece will embark on their first national tour since 1994, revisiting songs from Diary and LP2 for the benefit of audiences who may never have had a chance to see the band live during their brief run.

As commercially successful and critically unfashionable as emo now is, it would be all too easy to dismiss Sunny Day Real Estate as the band that launched a thousand overly earnest ships. Yet, to blame Sunny Day for the current scourge of crybaby mall-punks is to ignore the significant influence they had outside of emo circles. More than any other band of their era, Sunny Day Real Estate made a place for ambitious, sincere, technically skilled musicians in the world of punk rock and it is this accomplishment that has granted them lasting relevance. The fact that many of their imitators now enjoy a seat at the big kids' table is merely icing on the cake. Still, while many bands have tried in the years since, none have managed to wallow in their own sorrow as satisfyingly as the original Sunny Day Real Estate lineup once did. Here's hoping that the reunion tour serves as a reminder of that fact.


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