If Emitt Rhodes was the best album that Paul McCartney never recorded, then The Fire Theft is the best album that Sunny Day Real Estate never recorded. Except…that’s not an entirely accurate statement because, well, The Fire Theft pretty much are Sunny Day Real Estate, minus one member. Sunny Day Real Estate was one of the best bands to come out of Seattle in the 90’s that nobody has heard of. Often horribly mislabeled as the founders of “emo,” SDRE carved a truly unique niche in the 90’s Sub-Pop catalog and evolved to become significantly more artistically minded than any of their contemporaries.
The band was never too concerned with recognition, they were notorious for shunning interviews and very little if any live footage of them exists, despite this medium being their primary pathway to whatever fame they did achieve. It is because of this and their similarly unmarketable decision to rename themselves that has led to the softening of their historical impact. Really, there is not much difference between SDRE’s “final” album, The Rising Tide, and The Fire Theft’s first album, other than slight personnel changes; both albums maintain three fourths of the original band. The real difference is the sound: play SDRE’s 1994 release Diary up against The Fire Theft’s 2003 eponymous debut and you’ll realize why people forget they are the same group.
But perhaps the name change was necessary, because despite mainting the majority of members from SDRE, The Fire Theft is a significantly more mature band. Instead of simply crafting concise pop songs, vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Enigk, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith constructed a real album. Complete with instrumentals, stacked vocal harmonies, string sections, samples, loops, and electronics all squeezed between intros, interludes, reprises and outros, The Fire Theft makes Diary seem like a demo tape.
Because of this newfound adventurousness, when all is said in done, these are also the best songs the band has ever written. When, after the haunting instrospection of the album’s opener “Uncle Mountain” and the curious “segue” (or [p]reprise) which is the second track, the crashing beat of Goldsmith’s drums fall 1 minute and 10 seconds into “Oceans Apart,” and we begin to realize this is not traditional fare. The song continues to build for 3 more minutes until it stops, almost suddenly, and only later do we realize that these entire first three songs and 11 minutes have been serving as the album’s introduction.
The sixth song on the album, “Summertime”, highlights the experimentation on this album. Enigk’s voice soars over the strings and keyboards when he takes his voice, powerful as ever, up an octave in the second verse. The familiar power of Enigk’s guitar is mixed with the previously unfamiliar strings and electronic loops that fade out the track.
“Heaven” is probably the best track on the album, a track which effortlessly summarizes everything I have been trying to convey about the album. Enigk again uses his voice remarkably effectively on this track, and the ever-growing harmonies that begin at 2:22 bring it to an incredible climax before the band returns to the idée fixe of the album at 2:55 and then fades to a simple, lingering piano line.
Yet, like I said before, despite everything else that makes The Fire Theft distinctly significant within the SDRE/TFT catalog, it is the magnificent songwriting that holds the record together. “It’s Over” is probably the best concise “pop” song on the record. The mix of Enigk’s insatiably catchy guitar loop, Mendel’s creative and every-developing bass support, Goldsmith’s unique drumming on the chorus, the band’s harmonies, their build to the chorus, and of course the totally unexpected ending of it all contribute to the song’s beauty in simplicity and lucidly illustrate a band that was not only meant to be, write and play together, but were destined to grow and mature together as well. This album is the result.