Jeremy Enigk has had a tumultuous existence as the founding father of emo. Sunny Day Real Estate found their way into the hearts of every sensitive punk rock kid with their debut, Diary. Their self-titled sophomore effort was a landmark effort -- the emo OK Computer, if you will -- but infighting found the group disbanding before they could enjoy their status atop the emo heap. Enigk found God, became a born-again Christian, and in 1996 released a woefully underrated solo effort, Return of the Frog Queen.
Then, in 1997, to the delight of fans everywhere, Sunny Day Real Estate returned with How It Feels to Be Something On, a comeback album that was on par with, if not better than their previous efforts. They followed this up with The Rising Tide, which was received with mixed reviews and was promptly followed by the band's second break-up and disappearance.
Late last year it was reported that Enigk was reuniting with two of his former bandmates, William Goldsmith and Foo Fighters' bassist Nate Mendel, under the name the Fire Theft, and promised an album of new material. Early demos quickly appeared on the band's website and seemed to indicate that the group wasn't straying too far from the sound they had cultivated in Sunny Day Real Estate.
Actually, the demos, which now appear in final form on the Fire Theft's debut, are the few tracks that hearken back to the sweeping, emotional sound of Sunny Day Real Estate. On the other hand, most of the Fire Theft's debut finds them employing grand orchestration and taking cues from the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, to mixed results. By trying to apply big rock riffs and 1970s prog structures to Enigk's bare and vulnerable style, the Fire Theft seem to be struggling for a new sound. Despite their bid to remain relevant within the current indie rock scene, they couldn't sound more confused.
The album's opener, "Uncle Mountain", begins with a simple, tinny, reverberated beat guided by a quietly strummed rhythm guitar and a delicate string section, before the piano-driven vocals kick in. This is the best example of Jeremy Enigk's new modus operandi, and consequently of the failing point of the Fire Theft. By adding strings and keys to exaggerate the emotional content of these songs, they are stripped of their potential poignancy. The songs suffer under the weight of overbearing production and heavily plotted song structures. Eschewing the emotional spontaneity that made Sunny Day Real Estate so refreshing, the Fire Theft nearly beats the listener over the head with each musical movement.
"Oceans Apart" and "Rubber Bands" find the group foolishly toying with instrumental-only tracks. The two songs come off sounding like filler, the latter a self-indulgent exercise in monster-rock riffing.
Thankfully, there are some gems to be found here. The previewed demo tracks are fleshed out and sound fantastic, particularly "It's Over", in which Jeremy Enigk's raw vocals are pushed to the front of the mix to stunning effect. "Summertime", the best track on the album, is a perfect synthesis of the Fire Theft's intentions. The additional keys are minimal and the orchestration is bare but powerful. The emphasis here is still on Enigk's beautiful voice and lyrics: "I can run bearing rumors all traced in the past / Painted mirrors all aging with cracks / Which way and how far / I will try to reach the landscape of where you begin / Not the reflection of what I pretend". The end result is a song that matches the sonic growth Enigk is looking for with the powerful sentiment that initially brought him to the attention of the indie rock world.
The Fire Theft hasn't been able return with the triumph that Sunny Day Real Estate managed after their first abrupt departure. Very few musicians have the talent to disappear, then return and nearly trump their previous efforts. The good news is that Jeremy Enigk's songwriting is still as strong as it has always been. However, in the Fire Theft his desire to grow as a musician finds him playing against his strengths -- namely, his voice -- resulting in an album that could've been so much more, with so much less.