Reunions seem to be quite a popular thing now. Bands that long ago broke up are re-uniting to play shows, make albums and dig up the past. It’s generally thought of as a crappy thing to do. Cashing in on their former glory and trampling what’s left of their legacy into the dirt. They’re not always a bad thing though. I’ve been to about 5 Dinosaur Jr shows since they got back together and I genuinely like the last two records they’ve put out (though neither hold a candle to “Bug”). My point is, sometimes it works, some bands just make better music together than they ever would apart.
Not all reunions are as blatant as that though. Bands reform under other names and go off in whole new directions. Same members, different music. The Fire Theft is the product of one of those kinds of rejuvenations. The band started off as Sunny Day Real Estate, a pioneering emo/indie act from Seattle. They were one of the few bands from that city in the early 1990’s that weren’t a grunge act, despite being signed to Sub Pop. Frontman Jeremy Enigk’s high pitched and somewhat strained voice was miles away from the guttural growl of the likes of Eddie Vedder. This and the bands emotionally charged lyrics and less riff heavy music separated them, regardless of geography, from a genre that, by the time their first album Diary was released, was in its dying days. After just two albums the band split and bass player Nate Mendel and drummer Will Goldsmith went off to join the Foo Fighters. Sunny Day reformed without Mendel in 1997 and released another two albums before separating again after their label Time Bomb Recordings fell apart.
So in 2001 the band reunited for a second time, however Mendel decided to come along for the ride whilst Sunny Day’s guitarist Dan Hoener was absent. Deciding to put the past behind them, this new line-up changed its name to The Fire Theft and set about recording a new album.
From the very start of this record there is tension. Uncle Mountain, the record’s opening track starts with drawn out strings and a quietly strummed electric guitar. They seem to build and fade, like the soft breathing of a sleeping animal. Heavily processed drums are gradually introduced before the whole thing stops and Enigk’s slightly croaky vocals creep over a lone piano. A few seconds later and there is an explosion of cymbals and we’re in full flow. Uncle Mountain captures the feel of the album almost perfectly. Its big and expansive sounding, with string sections that seem to stretch on for miles. At points it’s up-beat and life affirming and at others reflective and thoughtful. Enigk’s vocal delivery is full of emotion and is a force to be reckoned with regardless of his lack of technical ability. When he delivers a line like “I want love/If love wants me”, it's with such conviction, that it seems like it’d be futile to argue.
One of the highlights for me is the intro to Chain. A series of soft synth chords are suddenly blown apart by Enigk’s powerful voice. Its not jarring, but the force there can take you by surprise as Engik is wont to do. For me it's the first point on the album where the tension boils over and Enigk’s vocals really take off.
Summertime is by far the best track on the album as well as the most atmospheric. The song is so well orchestrated that it’s hard to imagine it with out any of the instruments in there. Nothing is excessive or over done but there are vast cymbal crashes, soaring strings and a beautiful backwards synth line that starts off the song and carries through the verses. The melody and its tone of hopeful melancholy are a perfect fit for a song about someone waiting to see what the summer will bring. The song ends in the sound of waves and giggling bringing the story to its conclusion. Maybe it is a little clichéd but its hard not feel uplifted and slightly hopeful yourself whilst listening to it. It was never released as a single so there was no video for it but if there was you can bet that it would have the warm, grainy, look that only a super 8 film in the summer can achieve.
By now the albums tension has started to wane in favour of a more thoughtful and somewhat nostalgic point of view. Compared to Chain, a song like Houses sounds like a lullaby with Enigk lamenting “oh no I'm feeling lazy and I mean to see the world”. The album never loses its way or its vast, epic sound. It just changes moods and that's fine. It keeps things interesting. However the anger soon creeps back. Waste Time for example has strong, forceful instrumentation throughout with the vocals alternating between soft verses and louder choruses.
Apart from the sheer power of the vocals and the brilliant arrangements on each song by Mark Nichols and Jeremy Enigk, the thing that makes this album stand out for me is the great songwriting. There's a definite formula of soft verses contrasted with louder choruses, but each one is individual enough in both melody and instrumentation that the album doesn't just blur into one song. Brad Wood (who also produced Liz Phair and Veruca Salt) does a good job balancing the strings and synths with the more traditional “rock band” elements of the record. Although there are big arrangements and parts of the album sound almost like a film score, the songs never disappear underneath it all. It helps fill the songs out rather than dominate them.
After the album came out, nothing much happened with the Fire Theft . The band have since reformed as Sunny Day Real Estate for what seems like the 38th time and are currently working on a new record. There has been talk of both a live DVD and a second album by The Fire Theft but so far nothing has come of it. Though I'm not completely sure that matters. Regardless of what they call themselves they’re still the same guys working on music together.