Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Know That We Would Fall in There For A Time and Then Unfall Again...

(Continued from a previous post)

LP2 was a greater success than Diary commercially if not artistically. But the tensions in the band were too great, and before the album was even released the foursome had gone their separate ways. Mendel and Goldsmith were recruited by Dave Grohl to join Foo Fighters, while Hoerner moved to a farm in rural Washington state and Enigk recorded a solo record called Return of the Frog Queen, which is not without its merits (though I will not be discussing it anymore).

Sub Pop, who was losing its status as a giant of the indie labels (and I know that's counterintuitive) began urging Enigk and Hoerner to collaborate on an album of b-sides and rarities. Buzz began building when Mendel and Goldsmith agreed to contribute to the project. It was soon realized that the album would be short, so the group began writing new material. The rarities album never came to fruition, however, because the group decided instead to record a new full album. Sub Pop was informed and agreed to the change. The buzz grew.

How it Feels to Be Something On

Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate
Title: How it Feels to Be Something On
Label/Year: Sub Pop 1998

During the recording sessions for the second Foo Fighters album, Dave Grohl secretly re-recorded most of the drum tracks with himself playing because he was unhappy with how Goldsmith had played. Understandably upset, Goldsmith left the band to devote his time exclusively to the Sunny Day Real Estate reunion and the new album. Nate Mendel, however, backed out before Sunny Day went into the studio, committing himself full time to Grohl and the Foo Fighters. Mendel had already contributed to many of the songs which found their way onto the third Sunny Day album, but for the recording and the subsequent tour, Jeff Palmer played bass (he was replaced during the tour by Joe Skyward).

How it Feels to Be Something On presented a much more mellow, mature sound to Sunny Day fans. Enigk's characteristic stratospheric voice was more subdued on many tracks. Gone, too, were the interweaving of different instruments. The construction of the different parts were much more traditional; rhythm guitar and bass laid the tonal foundation beside the steady drums, while lead guitar was more subdued than previous offerings.

Despite these differences, the album has gems. The opening track, "Pillars" feels the most like original Sunny Day (the title of this post is borrowed from this song). The album continues without interuption to track two, "Roses in Water." This, again, feels like older Sunny Day, with the familiar unison rhythmic patterns from the first two albums. Back, too, are the hypnotic repetitions which pepper Diary and LP2.

The third track, "Every Shining Time You Arrive" is one of the most beautiful songs on the album; a two chord progression and a looped drum part (which at first I cringed, but it seems to fit, and even as a drummer I've admitted this was a good idea) flow under simple lead lines and Enigk's floating melody. But let me talk about the looped drum part for a moment, if I might. It's true that looping one measure of drum part over and over in a four minute song could get boring, especially for the drummer when you have to play it live, but as a listener you don't notice until it stops for a moment, following the only cymbal crash in the whole song. It has the effect of your grandmother cursing, you know? Think of the most foul-mouthed person you know, and you won't bat an eye when they drop an F-bomb. It has all the effect of an empty water balloon bursting three feet behind you. But if your grandmother dropped one, it has the effect of a supernova. Looping the part was a way to insure Goldsmith only added one crash. Supernova.

From here, the album goes to "Two Promises" which is almost as bad as the album gets. The lyrics are trying too hard to be "She's Leaving Home" by The Beatles; "He thinks, I gave her my heart, she tasted my blood/now she's gone again/Why did you leave me here?/How could you leave me down here?" Add to this, if you try to sing along with it you find it nearly impossible. It's common in Sunny Day Real Estate songs for the guitars to be doing one thing and the vocal a completely different, but in this case the difference is too great.

And unfortunately, you find out next where they could go that could be worse than where they've been. "100 Million" is Dan Hoerner's attempt at an anthem condemning the commoditization of everything and the destruction of the environment. It is blatant; "Pay for the food on your plate to live/Pay for the mood in your mind to give a thought disguised/pay for the simplest things" and the most blatant "One hundred million/fences surround us/can we own everything/including the moon and the sun and the stars?" It's clear that Enigk is the songwriter in the group, while Hoerner just dabbles.

There is respite after this track, however, as the title track is up next. Like Diary's "Sometimes" "How It Feels..." lilts but is full of power and sadness. It always feels like the weight of the song is keeping it from going too fast; powerfully fast drum licks are followed by slow time keeping, Goldsmith leaning on the backside of each beat (jazz drummers will know the opposite of what I am talking about). Like LP2, this album has a creamy center with this piece.

The album moves on to "The Prophet" which begins with acoustic guitar and what sounds like it could be a Buddhist mantra chanted under rising vocal oh's. The drums kick in, not keeping time but denoting breaks where it is acceptable to nod. Without warning, the tune kicks into slow time and the real vocals start, then back, then back again. This makes for good driving music but not good listening music. Following a tune which is a pure pleasure just to sit and listen to, "The Prophet" comes along and instigates movement with its pulse pounding drums and soaring vocals. The end of this tune comes at such fever pitch, you imagine there might not be room for any more music in your speakers regardless of their size.

Aware of this, the band turns it down for the next track, fan favorite "Guitar and Video Games." And before you ask, yes, it is about playing guitars and video games. Sort of. In standard slow-SDRE fashion, this tune lilts. It is, uncharacteristically, about love that seems to be working out. As a teenager when this album was released, who spent much of his time playing guitar and video games, it gave me hope; maybe out there somewhere is a girl who won't mind me and might even join in with guitar and video games. And as I count myself as a fairly standard representation of Sunny Day's fanbase, you can see how it became a fan favorite.

The album's penultimate song has an interesting title with "The Shark's Own Private Fuck." This goes into the same category as "The Blankets Were the Stairs" because I couldn't tell you for a moment why it's called this. I can say that the string accompaniment fits perfectly with the tune, and that it seems as though Goldsmith used this tune as an opportunity to crash his cymbals enough to make up for the restrained loop-track on "Every Shining Time You Arrive."

The final tune on this album, "The Days Were Golden," is rather tragic. Not in and of itself because it's fairly straightforward. "The days were golden/and we were known to be/We won't escape this memory forward on/to the place we sail" it opens. No, what's tragic is that the title says the days were golden. The truth hurts; this album is only a slight improvement over LP2 and does not artistically approach Diary. It's as if the band knew things could not be as good in the future as they had been.

I had the good fortune to be in the audience at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis on February 25, 1999, to see Sunny Day Real Estate as they toured in support of this album. Everything about that night was perfect. Well, almost perfect. I remember it was warm for a February night, which was great. The opening band was a group called MK Ultra (headed by John Vanderslice, if anybody knows who that is) and I had come prepared; they were good enough I wanted to buy their album, so I went to the merch table and bought a copy of The Dream is Over and a Sunny Day Real Estate t-shirt. The shirt, for the record, was a ringer, white with black rings, with the fly from LP2 on the chest and the name of the band on the back in the same font used all over Diary. The second band came out, Heroic Doses, and I liked them so much I bought their album. And when I say album, I mean vinyl. They were out of CDs, and I could either pay them now and give them my address (not falling for that no matter how legit it turned out to be), buy it online (this was 1999, the early days of internet shopping) or get it on cassette or vinyl. I went vinyl. Vinyl is actually a topic for another day, though. Cool moments of the night: peed next to bassist for MK Ultra and shook hands with Heroic Doses' drummer after their set. He was taller than even me. Scary.

I wish I could remember the whole set list. I know they opened with "Pillars" and they played "Seven" and "Rodeo Jones." I also know they played "100 Million" which just confirmed the idea in my head that it is the worst song they've ever written. They played "J'Nuh" and "The Prophet" which I thought was a new song because they started it differently than it starts on the album.

What was cool about the show was Jeremy and Dan spoke to the audience a lot. They talked about the first time they played a show in St. Louis, which Dan said took place in "the basement of a Hardees I think, and there were about twelve people there, only two of whom had heard of us before and only one of whom had a high opinion of us." I remember somebody shouting, "Play 'Two Promises'" and Jeremy saying, "No. You don't want us to do that live, trust me. It's no good live." Somebody else yelled, "Play 'Seven'" and when Dan said they already had, the guy shouted back, "I got here late, play it again!" Everyone laughed. At one point, Goldsmith broke a stick. To close, they played "Days Were Golden." As each member finished their part, he turned off his amp and left the stage until only Goldsmith remained, lightly hammering the time as his spotlight turned amber and completely faded. Amazing. At the end of the night, I had the CD, the record, the t-shirt (on over the shirt I brought), and the broken drumstick. My buddy Zach had similar packages (no vinyl for him) plus an intact drumstick. Our friend Dave made off with a copy of the set list (I wonder if he still has it). It was amazing, and made even more so by the fact that I was sixteen and it was a school night. My ears rang the whole next day, I was tired, but I wore that shirt at school with a smile on my face.

Joe Skyward opted out of the band after the tour ended, and it was decided Enigk, Hoerner and Goldsmith would enter the studio as a threesome to record a fourth album. But not before Sub Pop released a live album and a live concert video.

I'm not going to review the live album. The artwork is boring, the mix isn't great. It's none of the fun of going to a real concert. The video isn't much better. But it fulfilled Sunny Day Real Estate's contract with Sub Pop, and before going into the studio they went label shopping, and ended up on Time Bomb recordings (an independent label with the power of BMG's distribution network). It was felt that this arrangement would be most beneficial; the small label would allow Sunny Day to stay in creative control while BMG could reach a larger market. Good bye Sub Pop, hello Time Bomb.

The Rising Tide

Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate
Title: The Rising Tide
Label/Year: Time Bomb 2000

In early 2000, a free mp3 was offered on Sunny Day's website. It was an early mix of "The Ocean" from their new album, and I liked what I heard. It was of the mellow variety Sunny Day Real Estate, but it had everything I loved about their music. I couldn't wait until the album came out.

I remember buying this CD at Vintage Vinyl at midnight on June 20th, 2000. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wore my Sunny Day Real Estate shirt and stood in line for an hour before midnight. I went with my friend Emily Adams in her VW Beetle. It was that awesome kind of summer night warmth that is perfect for driving with the windows down. About five minutes after midnight, I had my copy and we were heading back out to her car. We took the longest route home we could think of while I blasted the CD. I managed to keep it low enough her speakers weren't blown out, but only barely. I remember the rubber seal around the passenger door was peeling off inside the car and flapping in the breeze and I remember when the CD ended and we still weren't back to her house (which is where my car was, which was not mine but my dad's and didn't have a CD player) and the CD started over and I beat the dashboard along with William Goldsmith so hard that the glove compartment opened, bashing me in the knees.

This album opens that well. The first track, "Killed By an Angel" starts with a crescendo of drums and into very heavy guitar. For a moment, it feels like old Sunny Day is back. Unison, each instrument feels like it wants to lead but everything fits. Enigk soars above it. And this first tune atones for the sin of "100 Million." This is how you write a song about the state of affairs. "Beg for more when all else fails/serum viles to help you when your sad" the song says, repeating the line "It's never how you feel/it comes in a bottle."

Inexplicably, track two on this album is called "One." And while tunes such as "Seven," "8," "47" and "48" have nothing to do with the number, this one does. "Everything and everyone and in the end we are all one/The truth will not be denied" the chorus goes, annoyingly. The song even opens with the line "And it's strange/how we're wasting our lives novacaine/when the pain helps us rise/here we stay." You realize, oh. It's going to be one of those albums, with a theme of "this is how we see the world and what we think is wrong with it." Look, unless you're U2, a whole album of that gets a little much. Also, it last time you tried something like that, you wrote the worst song you have ever written, maybe you should stick to writing about introspection.

The third track is called "Rain Song" and it dawned on me the first time I thought about it, that they're not the first band to have songs titled "Rain Song" and "The Ocean" on the same album. Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy anyone?

Unfortunately, Sunny Day's "Rain Song" is a bad love song. "You are a devil, they say and it's candy" springs to mind as evidence. Also, "Nevermind the words they waste/they can't see you're mine" and the appallingly creepy "dreaming of the day when you open your arms in the light of our love." You are not the same band that released Diary are you? In fact, the artwork in the liner notes opposite the lyrics for the first three tunes indicates that they are the same band, minus a member; a promotional photograph of the band had been turned into a two-toned pictogram of, from left to right, Goldsmith, Enigk and Hoerner. None of them appear to be smiling.

The fourth track on the album, "Disappear," buys back some of this transgression. In fact, it's got a great pulsating beat and driving guitar, it would fit perfectly where "100 Million" falls on How it Feels... but then this album would have less to sell itself on.

By this point in the first listen, I had learned the main difference between the Sunny Day Real Estate of the year 2000 and the Sunny Day Real Estate of the year 1994; they think they learned how to write a song.

In truth, the artistry seemed to be gone, which is frustrating for a fan. Again, "Disappear" is not a bad tune. But it feels like a regression from where they've been. The following track, "Snibe" is about a fictitious monster, according to interviews with Hoerner. Snibe is inside us all. Snibe is what makes us do bad things to our fellow man. I can't help but like this song, though. The instrumentation is interesting and heavier than the band usually goes. The melody is clever and different enough from what the instruments are doing that it feels less like a regression and more like a sidestep. But the lyrics keep me from loving this song. "Old enough to abuse me/But all too cheap to amuse me" precedes a statement which seems to admit complacency in letting hunger and poverty persist. Again, unless you're U2...

But then we get to "The Ocean" which is the first track on the album that doesn't seem to be trying to either solve or showcase the problems of the world. It lilts. This would fit well on Diary almost. For the first time on this album, it feels like an improvement from their debut. And the ending of this's perfect. I love it. In case you were wondering if I had anything actually nice to say about this album, yes. Yes I do. I love this song. This song is the album's creamy center.

Sunny Day then takes their similarities to Led Zeppelin a step too far with their next track, "The Fool in the Photograph" (In Through the Out Door's "Fool in the Rain" anyone?) but here it stops. With this tune, Sunny Day does something it hadn't done much of except for with LP2's "Iscarabaid" and "J'Nuh:" An instrument matches the vocals. Perhaps they were thinking back on the "Two Promises" debacle, and decided to integrate a fail safe into this tune, which is a difficult one to sing along with as well, though the instrunentation helps. The only truly odd spot in this tune comes at the three minute mark. Up until that point, it's had a kind of mid-eastern style to the chord changes and melody. Then all of a sudden, it's a Rob Thomas song. Not a good feel.

"Tearing in My Heart" comes next, a lilting quiet piece that inexplicably opens with footsteps and a woman's sharp, scratchy and almost angry sounding voice saying "Here's some kids, you wanna hear some kids?" Without waiting for us to answer yes or no, she says, "Listen." And you do hear kids, playing. Apparently, this was Dan's sister recording herself walking around Paris, or something like that. It's strange, and I'm not sure what kind of expiremental angle they were trying to go for with that move. Other than that, the tune itself isn't bad. It's everything "Rain Song" tried to be but wasn't in terms of musicality, and it's a song about how it feels to be abandoned and then rescued. "Tearing in my heart when it all falls apart/and it's almost too hard/Tearing in my soul when you help make me whole/when it's all said and done." A little blatant, but the point is made. It seems like they're trying to predict the future here (writer's note; they are doing that).

Next comes the very strange, we're-really-not-trying-to-sound-like-Radiohead-but-we-kinda-wish-we-did "Television." They don't succeed at sounding like Radiohead at all, but they try to add a little electronica. Not to mention Enigk throws in a vocal riff ripped from former Seattle neighborhood chums Pearl Jam (seriously, I expect Enigk to break into a very ironic version of "Jeremy" after this vocal run at about the one minute twenty second mark).

Next up, the second to last offering is called "Faces in Disguise" and it's actually pretty good. It feels a little Bruce Springsteen "Streets of Philadelphia" inspired, but that's a pretty good tune itself. This one never gets too loud or too busy. This is the peak point of the album, in fact. While it is not like any other Sunny Day Real Estate, it's not bad like some of the other new avenues they explore on this album.

The album closes with the title track. And it returns to the theme of much of the album. "Color your skin with gold and the violence remains/cover your eyes with rose but the stain remains." But much like the first track, this particular tune handles the matter well. While "Killed by An Angel" rocks hard to get the point across, "The Rising Tide" relies on a more subdued piano feel. The record ends with the line "Morning comes in the dream before we rise/when we linger side by side/it's my heart that speaks this time/we will ride the rising tide" which sounds like it could be usurped by Glenn Beck if you think about it, but it's a message of hope. The tide rising is not a bad thing, it's a good thing. High tide can wash away the bad. Right?

Six days after this album found its way out of Vintage Vinyl and into my hands, I took it back to Vintage Vinyl. No, I didn't hate it so much I was willing to sell it back at a loss. And I wasn't so strapped for cash that I sold my most recent acquisition. Why would I return to the store with my copy?

This is why. I wish that were me in that picture, but it's not (I pulled this off of Vintage Vinyl's website). But I was there, trust me, this time with my friend Katie. I got my copy of The Rising Tide signed (I love the guy in this picture with his vinyl copy of How it Feels... which just made me remember Dan Hoerner's sweet tattoo of the starburst from the cover of that album on his left forearm...okay, sorry to slow you down). It was very cool to get the album signed by Jeremy, William and Dan. I even talked to them about their show the year before at Mississippi Nights. Dan said the crowd was great. Jeremy said the second opening act was tough to follow. William said he didn't remember it, that he had such a fever for a couple nights, he said he couldn't remember the shows between Nashville and Boulder. Zach was there, too, and he had the band sign not only his copy of The Rising Tide but also the drumstick Goldsmith had accidentally thrown into the crowd (which was how Zach got the drumstick).

Later that night, they played at The Firehouse. I got there particularly early, so we could get right up close to the stage. In fact, we arrived before the band did, and we were sitting against the venue outside eating Taco Bell (procured for us by a friend who asked us to save him a spot while he got food) when the tour bus pulled up. Dan looked at me and said, "Hey, I know that guy!" It was a cool moment for me.

I wish I could remember more of this concert. I couldn't tell you who the opening bands were, because they weren't all that great. I can tell you that Jeremy, Dan and William were center stage while two nameless guys played bass and keyboard kind of almost off-stage left. I know they played "8" and most of the new album and I remember thinking that "Tearing in My Heart" was a beautiful live song. I know they played "In Circles" and "Shadows." When they played, "The Rising Tide" they exited the stage for five minutes before coming back out. We all screamed, "Play 'Seven'" or whatever other song everybody wanted to hear, but they surprised us all by playing "Sometimes" which they have rarely played live. And that was how it ended; "No words, right words."

After the show, William threw his busted snare drum head frisbee-style into the crowd, and I jumped up and caught it. Dan saw this, looked at me and recognized me again. "I guess you'll have to hold onto that," he said, "and we can sign it the next time we come through." Another awesome moment for me.

But, as the title of this post says, they fell in there for a time and then unfell again. Time Bomb pulled funding for their European tour last minute and then almost overnight disintegrated, leaving the band without a label and without any more tour dates. In fact, the situation with Time Bomb had been a slow burning disaster from the start, with mismanagement and disorganization and very little cash flow. Disilusioned and tired, the band called it quits for a second time.

Amazingly, Hoerner-Enigk-Goldsmith is still Sunny Day Real Estate, but Enigk-Goldsmith-Mendel apparently becomes something new. In 2001, that trio announced a new project entitled The Fire Theft. Like many "projects" in the music industry, this wasn't going to be a band per se, but a group (or "band") of musicians who would tour and record when they had no other obligations (such as Mendel's ongoing association with The Foo Fighters, Enigk's solo career, Goldsmith's crippling arthritis, etc). The music was almost Sunny Day. Almost.

In 2006, rumors began sweeping the internet of a possible SDRE reunion. These rumors were quickly quelched by the members of the band.

In 2007, more rumors began, and while these were also denied, they were not denied as forcefully. And in late 2007, it seemed Enigk and Goldsmith at least were interested in maybe thinking about the slightest chance of possibly pondering the notion of thinking of a reunion. Maybe.

By late 2008, plans were being made. Even Mendel was on board.

And late Summer 2009, Sunny Day Real Estate began touring again. I dug the old drum head out of storage. And then I checked the schedule.

They overlooked St. Louis. I couldn't believe it...they had planned a tour without a stop in the Gateway City. I was heartbroken.

But the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Fellow St. Louisans, you know what I'm talking about: what venues do we have left? Mississippi Nights? Gone. The Firehouse? Dante's Inferno stupid freaking skank dance club now. The Galaxy? Gone. The Side Door? Gone. The Hi-Pointe? Gone. All that's really left is Kiel/Savvis/Scott Trade, The Fox, Riverport/UMB Bank Pavillion/Verizon Wireless/whatever-the-crap-it's-called-now Ampitheatre and The Pageant. Most of those venues are too big or too expensive for Sunny Day. I guess The Pageant was all booked up.

Diary and LP2 have been re-released with bonus tracks on CD and clear red vinyl (available for purchase at This link for anyone interested in buying me a birthday or Christmas present, hint hint clear red vinyl copies of SDRE albums). Their concert from 9/30/09 at the 9:30 club in D.C. was recorded for NPR's All Songs Considered Live Concert Podcast (go download this right now on your iTunes). They opened with "Seven" and closed with "Days Were Golden." They played "Spade and Parade" which was one of their old b-sides. They didn't play a single song from The Rising Tide, which I guess speaks to their own opinion about the album. They even played a new song. If you want to know how it sounds, well...I guess you'll have to go download the podcast yourself. I think I've spoken enough on the subject.

Happy listening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

As stated previously, Eoin Colfer reluctantly accepted the task of writing a sixth book in Douglas Adams' science-fiction/comedy magnum opus The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Adams himself died in 2001, nine years after the publication of the fifth book in the series. Bridging the gap was probably more than enough of a challenge for Colfer, but he had an even bigger obstacle to keep in mind, an obstacle which in this case is presented to you in the form of me, the Hitchhiker fan. And the worst part is, unlike writer's block or editors or computers crashing and erasing all that masterful writing you had just forgotten to save after sixty pages leaving only the first three pages you intended to throw out anyway, the fan comes in at the end of the process. The fan determines your level of success, to a point.

I say "to a point" because Colfer had a fair amount of built-in success with this writing venture. Millions of readers the world over know and love the Hitchhiker series, and millions of readers the world over know and love Colfer's own Artemis Fowl series (and there is bound to be some overlap). When you've got an artist that sells, selling a product that sells, chances are, you're not going to lose money. I haven't checked the numbers, but I'd feel safe betting that Colfer and his publisher are sitting pretty on this one.

But the measure of success for a writer doesn't come in the sales, it comes in the critical response and (sometimes more importantly) the respose of the amateur critic (read: the general public, i.e. you and me). So Colfer's built in sales can be discounted for the rest of this review. Sufficed to say, Colfer had multiple barriers to overcome when writing this book.

When we last left the heroes of the Hitchhiker series, Douglas Adams had managed to kill four of the original main characters (one of them twice) as well as two new characters. For the record, Marvin The Paranoid Android turned himself off for the last time at the end of book four (So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) while Arthur, Ford, Trillian and a Trillian from a different dimension were all killed off. At the beginning of the fifth book (Mostly Harmless), we find Arthur's lady love from book four has vanished in a hyperspace accident. Also, Random (Trillian's daughter by Arthur's sperm-bank deposit) was killed. Zaphod, the two-headed insane Galactic President, hadn't been seen since the end of book three (Life, The Universe and Everything).

Eoin Colfer's first barrier, therefore, was how to reunite four dead people with an absent character (just four; Marvin's story had ended positively enough and only four were present where the last book left off, as the Earth was destroyed yet again). And inexplicably, the book opens with an old man who you slowly suspect to be Arthur sitting on a beach reminiscing until a bird arrives and warns of a low battery. Two more scenarios play out, one with Ford Prefect living the high life until an octopus warns of a dying battery and the last with Trillian interviewing her own daughter while a small furry animal delivers the warning. And suddenly, the four find themselves in the midst of the Earth being destroyed, at the end of the last book.

Before the Earth is destroyed, however, Zaphod returns, and together the five disembark only to find themselves in need of rescue yet again. This is what Colfer has done; he has taken the structure of the original story and tweaked it. Originally, Ford and Arthur are rescued from the Earth by the very people working to destroy it, only to find themselves in need of rescue again moments later by Zaphod. In this case, Zaphod's rescue is the first and then a character by the name of Wowbagger arrives and saves them (Wowbagger being an immortal being who made brief appearances in book three).

This far in, it is clear that this is not and will not become a Douglas Adams novel. It is Colfer, through and through, which is comforting. Had anyone attempted to write the sixth book that Adams may have written, reader backlash would have been immediate. We as fans know that Adams was incomparable, and also that that was not always a good thing.

Adams had a quick and witty pen, but he was never a novelist. In fact, the first book in the series could be seen as nothing more than a series of events happening to the main characters while they absorb them. They were passive, especially Arthur who never grew out of that role as the series went on (except for briefly in the third book). Colfer, on the other hand, has a firm grip on what drives a novel (plot) and how plot should be driven (by the characters, rather than at the characters).

Read as a book by itself, And Another Thing... would bring a mild chuckle at times. It's the references which are its strength and weakness. Making jokes about Arthur's desire for a good cup of tea help keep the story grounded in its legacy. However, whenever Colfer goes onto one of his many Adams-esque tangents (Adams once said that when he was having trouble with the plot he was working on, he would invent a small sub plot and put it into the context of the story he was writing just to help it along; for instance the sub plot in book three about the Starship Titanic), Colfer delves into names of places and people which Adams had used before. This seems to be overkill; with each reference to Port Brasta, the Land of Brequinda, the Squornshellos system, Zarniwoop, Van Harl (oh, did you know Zarniwoop and Van Harl are the same person? according to Colfer, they are), and so forth, I would cringe. It was as if Colfer was at my elbow, nudging me in the side to say, "See, I know the first five books just as well as any of the hardcore fans. How else would I know about planets like Hastromil and Han Wavel?" We get it, Colfer, and we wish you'd come up with your own names.

These side-tracks don't always end this way. A particular story about an Atheist smuggling himself into Valhalla in the belly of a goat contains my favorite line in the whole book; while trying to cut himself from the goat's belly as it is being roasted above a fire, he reaches for his knife to find it is not there. "Where's my nothingdamned kife?" he asks. And one of these mini-plots concerns the man who invented the sub-etha network (the galactic equivalent, in this book anyway, of the internet) who went by the name of Doxy Ribonu-Clegg. Legend has it that as he lay on his back in a field on his home planet and gazed at the stars, he imagined all the space to be loaded with information and promptly discovered ways to transmit information through that space. Readers will smile and acknowledge this as a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams himself, concerning the story of how he came up with the idea for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria. The name Doxy Ribonu-Clegg is a hat tip to Adams' initials DNA, while the suggestion that he may have invented the internet being attributed to the fact that the way Adams visioned the fictional Guide, the internet (and specifically Wikipedia) have fulfilled that vision and with smart phones and the Amazon Kindle, the Guide is all but a reality now.

The main difference between this part of the series and the previous five parts (aside from the name on the cover) is that each character (including Arthur) has a clear motivation now. Zaphod wishes only to make money from a small band of humans he sold a planet to; Trillian wishes to give more attention to her daughter. Ford wants to dismantle the power structure at the Guide's offices which had suffered a takeover by the beuracratic Vogons. Random wishes to make a change in the galaxy, to grow up and become a leader. Wowbagger wishes to regain mortality. Thor (who plays a major role) wishes to regain his popularity which suffered a blow in recent times due to a compromising video posted on a galactic youtube site. And Arthur wishes to find Fenchurch again, and to live a peaceful life once and for all, to escape his bad luck and constant imminent doom.

We have to remember, though, that this is Arthur Dent we are talking about here. The only book in which he got what he wanted was the fourth one, and by the beginning of the fifth it had been taken away from him. So the question the reader has in mind now should be, will Colfer let Arthur Dent be happy? Well, you'll have to read to find out.

But the overall question is, will Colfer make the fans happy? My answer to that is the same as above; you'll have to read to find out. This is certainly not what Adams would have written, but if you come in expecting that you were never going to be happy. You have to approach the book without any expectations other than there will be characters with whom you are familiar. In the end, the book reads less like the sixth in the series and more like homage to the series, and to its creator who we all still, eight years later, miss. Which is not to say it's not worth the read. I will be stashing this on my bookshelf, to the right of the first five books in the series. I knew as I read it that it was not Douglas Adams' part six, but it still felt like it fit. As for Eoin Colfer, he has earned himself an appreciative nod from me. I know I could never, in a million years, have attempted to take on such a monumental task. I only hope that he knows how much I respect him. As far as I am concerned, he overcame the greatest barrier; me.


I know some readers may have been expecting part two of my Sunny Day Real Estate review, but I had to get to this before too long. Sunny Day Real Estate's newest album has been out nearly ten years, an extra day won't make much difference. Colfer's book has been out for eight days, I figured I should get this out while it's still a new book. But come back tomorrow for more Sunny Day rants, and the following day for more. That's right, I'm promising to blog for the next two days, which would make my consecutive day blogging total 4 days (five if you don't count weekends, but, I mean, seriously, you can count weekends). I look forward to bringing you some consistency which is not just consistently not blogging!

Monday, October 19, 2009

In Written Words, Held Like a Seam...

The title of this post is a reference to a line from a song called "The Blankets Were The Stairs" by Sunny Day Real Estate. Just so we know where we are coming from.

As I did with Douglas Adams, I am trying to get in touch with my artistic influences, and what better place to do that than here? We all win because I write out my thoughts which helps me process them and understand things better, you get to know me better and I might turn you on to some music or literature or film or something that you might not have known about. Please feel free to share your comments below (please please please) or, hey, if you have any questions or suggestions, fire away. I'm determined to make this blog a two-way street between myself and my readers. it.


In late 1995, I started a band with my friend Will. He played guitar, I played drums. Together, we played crappy versions of Nirvana, like all 13 year old musicians in the mid 90's. We were boys who were into flanel shirts and headbanging. Times were confusing. Kurt Cobain had, of course, killed himself more than a year before, so there would be no more Nirvana albums (or so we thought...though they're still not nearly as prolific post-mortem as Tupac or Biggie) and we needed to fill our void with something. We were both into Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, The Smashing Pumpkins...the list goes on and on. The problem is that none of them were as accessible to young, inexperienced musicians like ourselves. Try as we might, in 7th grade we were not going to be able to pull off "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" by any stretch.

So we picked up all the guitar magazines we could, the ones with whole guitar and bass parts transcribed in the back into notation and tablature. The drum parts I could figure out by repetitive listening. But that meant that when we found a song we liked, one of us (more likely both of us) had to buy the album and then find a guitar magazine that had the parts in it. This was hard. But one day we found a magazine with "I'll Stick Around" by the Foo Fighters in its back pages. So, as we both owned the album, we went for it.

The issue also had an interview with frontman Dave Grohl, and once we mastered the tune (we still didn't have a bass player yet), we read the article. Turns out, Dave Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana. And the other guitarist in the Foo Fighters? Pat Smear, who toured with Nirvana in support of their last album before Cobain's suicide. The other two members, Nate Mendel on bass and William Goldsmith on drums, had recently come from a less successful Seattle-based band (also on Nirvana's first label, Sub-Pop) by the name of Sunny Day Real Estate.

I found the drumming on the Foo Fighters' debut album to be nothing too special. It was steady rock drumming, technically proficient but not impressive. It certainly didn't sound any better than Dave Grohl had sounded with Nirvana.

Further digging into the article (and viewing several late-night TV appearances by the complete band) solved the mystery; Grohl had recorded the album by himself, laying down each instrument track by track. A tedious way to make a record, for sure. But knowing this, and seeing their performances on Letterman and SNL showed me just how good Goldsmith was.

And so I backed into Sunny Day Real Estate by degrees of separation. Nirvana-Foo Fighters-Sunny Day. And it's funny it happened in that order, because when I rank those three from least-favorite to most, the order stays the same.

Sunny Day Real Estate began as "Empty Set" in 1992, became "Chewbacca Kaboom" before coming through "One Day I Stopped Breathing" on their way to Sunny Day Real Estate. Goldsmith and Mendel laid the foundation behind Dan Hoerner's gritty guitar and grittier (more gritty?) vocals. If you can find a copy of their first EP Flatland Spider you can hear the familiar Seattle-Grunge sound. Hoerner's singing was much in the same feel of Mudhoney and some of the more hardcore bands. If Mendel hadn't taken a break from the band, Sunny Day Real Estate would not have had the impact on my, or on the world of music, that they had.

Fortunately for bands like The Get Up Kids, The Promise Ring, Alkaline Trio, The Anniversary and more modern additions like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, Mendel did take a break, which shifted Hoerner to bass and brought in Goldsmith's high school friend Jeremy Enigk to play guitar. Eventually, Enigk became a permanent fixture in the band; Mendel returned to bass, Hoerner to lead guitar and Enigk stayed on as rhythm guitar. Most importantly, he took over as vocalist. His strained, almost pleading voice changed the sound of the band forever. The emotional depth his voice brought was undeniable. Together, in 1994 the foursome entered the studio to capture lightning in a bottle.


Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate
Title: Diary
Lable/Year: Sub Pop 1994

Let me begin by saying that anyone who defines themselves as being "Emo" does not know what they are talking about if they don't own this album, has never heard of Rainer Maria, Rites of Spring, or Mineral and thinks that Panic! At the Disco is an emo band. Listen: Sunny Day Real Estate were the pioneers of the genre. They were emo before there was emo. And, and...and. GIVE UP THE WHOLE EMO THING! JUST BE YOURSELF!!

I apologize. Now. Take a look at the image up there. The album cover. Remember those Fischer Price Little People with the cylindrical bodies, perfectly round heads and banal smiles? Yeah. The back cover shows a bed as seen from overhead, with two more of these figures turned away from each other under the covers, on far opposite sides of the bed. Inside, you find Little People Firefighters arriving at a burning building, performing stomach surgery, drunk on the couch in front of the TV, fighting a medieval war and investigating a car crash. With these macabre images in your head, I delve into the music.

Diary opens with the explosive anthem "Seven" which has and always will be Sunny Day Real Estate's flagship. It has two powerful guitar parts which interact with each other perfectly on different octaves. The bass line undulates below the surface, not just playing the bass note of the chord; Mendel uses his instrument like a lead guitar. Listening to Goldsmith's drums you get the sense that he is a true artist behind the kit. In fact, each of these musicians uses their instrument as if it was the lead, the one you should be paying the most attention to. But they also listen to each other, respect one another's lines and rhythmically contribute to each other. It's a beautiful piece of music to listen to. You're only on the first track, though. And the vocals haven't even kicked in. Enigk's voice cuts above the guitar, the lyrics clear and poetic above the din of the band. If this song had been released with Hoerner singing, rest assured it would have been jumbled confusion. Enigk makes this a masterpiece of modern rock.

The song ends with a low rumble, each member in unison before a rock ending which is arena-worthy. But these guys never played arenas. This music was performed in intimate clubs across the country. But you're not there yet, because the second tune, titled "In Circles" starts, and on an artistic level it begins where the first left off.

The album doesn't continue this upward trend. "Song About an Angel," the third tune, brings it back a notch. The repeated line "Although you hit me hard I come back" strikes an emotional chord far deeper than the tune itself. The band picks it up with "Round," a pop-rock song fraught with the kind of angst so prevalent in much of today's indie rock. The opening line, "I feel wrong/what's wrong with me?" isn't the greatest writing, but it is as bad as the album gets. The next tune, "47" returns us to where "Song About an Angel" brought us. And then we get to the inexplicably titled "The Blankets Were the Stairs."

This is a heavily distorted guitar-driven piece of alternating tempos. While it is not among the more lyrically beautiful songs, it shows the depth of artistry the band contains within itself. Unison is again a theme for the musicians, while the lyrics float atop the din on Enigk's seemingly helium-buoyed voice (which is not to say he sounds like Mickey Mouse, just that he reaches the atmosphere handily and often, though to listen it sounds as they he is straining).

This being the heaviest tune on the album, it is followed by another inexplicable title, "Pheurton Skuerto." This is a lilting piano piece in 3/4 time. It has two chords and enigmatic lyrics. "Trip over words with gifts and garage," Enigk sings. It's short, and acts as a bridge at the halfway point of the album. The band is winding you down now, and wants your system to be ready.

"Shadows" follows, and this is arguably one of their best known songs. Not a difficult tune like "Blankets" or a rock symphony like "Seven" it has always been a crowd pleaser. It is easy to imagine this as one of their early tunes, easily transplanted from a Hoerner-led Sunny Day to an Enigk-led Sunny Day.

From here, we jump back into numbers with "48." The hypnotizing guitar patterns and drum part lull the listener into a false sense of security in the first minute, thinking this will be a lighter, softer song. But then the distortion kicks in with the heavy cymbals. And then, something else happens. The drums cut out but the distortion stays. Instead of diminishing the tension, it increases. With the screaming guitars, you want the drums. It becomes disconcerting and stays there even when the drums return. It keeps getting more and more tense until suddenly, you're back to peace. And it takes you throught it again.

The penultimate track, "Grendel" takes its title from a John Gardner novel of the same name. In interviews, Enigk has said that upon reading Gardner's book (which tells the story of Beowulf from the point of view of that legend's principal antagonist), he found it such a beautiful and tragic story and that the music and lyrics came to him one night. "I wanted to be them/but instead I destroyed myself" the chorus goes (writer's note: READ THAT BOOK!! Even if you haven't read Beowulf [writer's sub note: it doesn't count if you saw the film, which was a total bastardization of the story of Beowulf because in no way did Beowulf ever bump uglies with Grendel's mother, who looked nothing like Angelina Jolie (writer's sub-sub note: yes, I did just use the euphimism "Bumping Uglies")]) and the chorus gets it right.

The album closes with the slow, lilting "Sometimes." We again hear the line "Although you hit me hard I come back" except that this time it's sung in a completely different way. While the first time you hear it in "Song About an Angel" it sounds as though the singer is being defiant. In this instance, with the implied aimlessness of the lyrics ("Sometimes I can't lay down my past/Sometimes I'm too blind to see you laughing at me") it sounds more like a lament. The song, and the album, end with more heavy guitars and unison instrumentals, while Enigk cries overhead "No words, right words." He seems to be saying that this album, everything in it, is an attempt to say something, and only when every possibility has been exhausted can it be seen that whatever it was that needed to be said, it's all but impossible. There are no words that are the right words.


Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate
Title: LP2 (The Pink Album)
Label/Year: Sub Pop 1995

After Diary, Tensions in the band ran high. Under obligations to record a second album, the band returned to the studio but it was ill-fated. With barely enough material for a record, the group disbanded. It was at this time that Mendel and Goldsmith joined the Foo Fighters, while Hoerner bought a ranch and Enigk launched a relatively successful solo career.

With the contract firm, though, a product had to be delivered, so Enigk and Hoerner hastily recorded vocals (which they have admitted in interviews are often nonsense, which partially explains why this is the only SDRE album to be released without extensive liner notes or lyrics) and decided to include tracks which had been recorded during the Diary sessions but not included. When asked for artwork, legend has it that Enigk told the label to "make it pink." And so they did, including a drawing of a fly on the inner liner note and on the CD itself.

And so, what many have since called "The Pink Album" was released without a tour to support it. Despite this, it sold well. Many of the tunes are raw due to the rushed nature of the project. The opening tune, "Friday" sounds much like the previous album, only abridged. The second tune, "Theo B" shows a musical growth between albums. Again, Enigk's soaring vocals pick their way over the instruments, which while blending into the background maintain their individual "lead" characteristics. While many of Diary was guitar driven, this is bass driven for the first half. It ends with signature Hoerner-Enigk guitar riffs and unison phrasing.

It then unevenly shifts with "Red Elephant," another hypnotic piece like "48" but without the break and rising tension. "5-4" follows in the same way. The title itself references the time signature used for the tune, giving it a sort of limping-lilt feel which works well. It is at this point the album starts to come together, as "5-4" works to pull us out of the trance with distortion and tension.

"Waffle" follows, which restores the lilt without the limp. This tune amps up the distortion, the strained vocals Enigk is famous for. Just in time for this album's shiny center, entitled "8."

"8" begins simply enough, with a trance-like dissonance. Two chords repeat, but the bass note of the first chord remains. It gives you small moments of tension-and-resolution before the explosion of noise which comes a minute or so later. Then the Sunny Day Real Estate from "Seven" and "Blankets" returns; each instrument a lead, the vocals floating above, building tension, unison. They even bring in pitched feedback, screaming under the last verse. This is one of the more polished offerings of this record; it was recorded during the Diary sessions and used on the Batman Forever soundtrack (I know, I know, post-Burton pre-Nolan Batman movies, what's the point?).

From here, though, the band takes us into two very similar sounding tunes. Starting with "Iscarabaid" and going on to "J'Nuh" it seems that they were writing two versions of the same song, and rather than pick one they used both to fill out the album. To be fair, the vocals distinguish these tunes from one another far greater than the rhythmic differences. "Iscarabaid" is smoky, as if Enigk is singing at his limit, while "J'Nuh" is smooth and mellow. It plays out that while "Iscarabaid" is the better tune on the album, having seen them live I can say that "J'Nuh" is a better live vehicle because of the way it builds at the end. Guitar alone, two guitars, vocal cry overhead, then drums and bass enter. But these two together on the same album was a risky enough move; putting them next to each other feels like a mistake.

The album ends with "Rodeo Jones," a song which, when listened next to "Seven" might seem to share the same bond with it as "Iscarabaid" and "J'Nuh" share. Many of the same rhythmic devices are used. It is no wonder this was left off Diary and included on LP2. It is by no means a bad tune, and is a good way to end this second offering. It is, however, on the whole a much brighter tune. Maybe it was because this album was wrapped in pink, but LP2 has a cheerier tone than its predecessor. However, the short length belies the truth. Just as everything on Diary was not enough to say what needed to be said, LP2 falls short of its intended purpose.

Stay Tuned! I have seen this band in concert. Twice. I met them before the second time, then again at the concert. I have more to say, but this seems like more than enough for you to read for now. I'll leave you to it and say come back tomorrow!

Much of the information used in this post came from The official Sunny Day Real Estate website or The wikipedia article about the band with various offshoots therefrom. Credit where credit is due and all that. The opinions about the music, though, are all honest and mine. I have to go put on my SDRE shirt now and write in my journal.

I'd like to welcome my new niece to the world. Lydia, there's so much out here for you to discover. Yours is truly an enviable position, and not just because you can sleep all day and nobody will yell at you for it. I barely know you and I already love you.

Friday, October 16, 2009


September was a busy month.

I won't bore you with the details because they would bore you.

Sufficed to say, I will not be reviewing the other Douglas Adams books. I urge you to read them on your own, make up your own mind. At this point, reviewing them would just slow me down for what I want to do next. Let me get to that.

There are two posts that are in the works for sure. One is a post about my favorite band, which has reunited and is currently touring again for the first time in ten years (no St. Louis dates, suck). That will be coming soon. After that, I will write a book review. I finished Eoin Colfer's submission to the H2G2 series and have just about finished processing it enough to write about it. Expect both of those posts in the next couple of days.

I want to talk about the blog for a minute, readers. I appreciate everybody who stops by to read what I have to say, even though I may not update as frequently as you visit. I know how frustrating it is to come back to a blog you enjoy reading (and I hope you enjoy reading my blog) only to find that, once again, the deadbeat blogger hasn't updated in a day (a week, a month, several months...the list goes on). It is among the more annoying parts of the internet's culture of individualism; I am my own publisher when it comes to the blog, so I set my own deadlines and I'm very lax. Sometimes, I just get so backed up with work and other writing projects and whatever is going on in my personal life, and I neglect the blog. It's not that I don't want people stoppying by the site, it's just that it's not always at the forefront of my mind.

So, I apologize. I know I have said this before and it therefore has transitioned from reassuring to patronizing to just flat out lip service, but I will try to be more prolific on the blog.

I appreciate each individual hit I get on this site. I've been using Google Analytics for a little over a year and it always pleases me to see the number of hits I'm getting, small as they may be. It's fun to look at the map overlay and find people are visiting my blog from not just concentrated areas of family and friends, but also from places I have never been or places where I may not actually know anybody. Even if they just clicked on a link that turned up in a random search, it's nice to know I can reach people who had no idea I existed until they stumbled onto my corner of the web. I like that. And that brings me to my final point.

I have one request of you, dear readers. A small request, which will be phrased in the form of a statement of fact. I thrive on comments. Each comment I get urges me to return to the blog, clarify or enhance myself, churn out more pointless drivel for you to read while you should be working, etc. The more comments I get, the more I blog. And not just comments like, "You should blog again" or the string of comments that showed up on my last Q&A session (comments which were all in Asian characters and which I have no reason to suspect were not spam). No...thoughtful comments are great. Encouraging comments are great, too. Constructive criticism will be deleted and that person shunned. Ha! Kidding! Jokes are fun! And, well, yeah, jokes are fun. So, to run down: Comments I like include thoughtful, inspiring, encouraging, questions, constructive criticisms, suggestions for future writing projects, answers to my questions, and, um, bank account numbers w/ your mother's maiden name provided. Comments I dislike include angry criticisms, spams of any kind, suggestions that I increase the size of any of my apendages, and requests for my bank account number. You'll never get it, Mom, so stop trying.

Anyway...I hope to get a little more consistent with this blogging thing. November is coming up, and as we all know that is NaNoWriMo, and as it is the first year since 2004 that I am not enrolled in classes, I will set myself the goal of really hammering out some novel during the month of November, so you can bet I'll be easily distracted from that and probably post some musings about anything but the task at hand. So look forward to that.

Other than that, I'm all done except to say a one-day-late (as it is after midnight now, damn it all) Happy Birthday to my sister. Mo, as it is now officially the day after your birthday, you are no longer just thirty but you are in your thirties. I'm still in my twenties. But you still rock as a big sis.