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.

1 comment:

Molly said...

My head is spinning. Can I come over & listen to some SDRE?