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Emo to the core
The Fire Theft pick up where Sunny Day Real Estate left off

Sunny Day Real Estate might not have invented emo, but without them it sure is hard to imagine the platinum success of Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional. Almost 10 years ago, the Seattle band scored crucial late-night airplay on MTV with the videos for "Seven" and "In Circles," creating a huge college-rock buzz around their first album, Diary (Sub Pop). All the elements of the hottest sound on todayís all-ages scene were there: pretty guitars, a rhythm section with deep hardcore roots, and a teenage frontman with a big voice and a tortured soul. To this day, the only Sub Pop release thatís sold more copies than Diary is Nirvanaís Bleach.

Despite their now-legendary status, Sunny Day were never able to capitalize on the success of their debut: before the release of their homonymous second album, frontman Jeremy Enigk found God and broke up the band. In 1998, they got back together without original bassist Nate Mendel, who had gone on to join Foo Fighters, and put out the comeback disc How It Feels To Be Something On. Two years later, they left Sub Pop for Time Bomb and released The Rising Tide, a more commercial effort that was just getting off the ground at radio and retail when their new label collapsed. Frustrated, the band broke up for a second time.

Sunny Day appear to be over for real this time, because most of the guys who made Diary now have a new band, the Fire Theft, and a new homonymous album on Rykodisc. Enigk and drummer William Goldsmith, who wrote all the songs on The Fire Theft, are the lone holdovers from latter-day Sunny Day, but the big news is that for the first time since the original break-up, those two went into the studio with Mendel and producer Brad Wood. Since Foo Fighters are off the road at the moment, Mendel is aboard for the Fire Theftís current headlining tour, which wraps up this Saturday at Axis.

The first single, "Chain," makes it clear that Enigk and company are headed in a more mature, less rockiní direction than they were when we last heard from them, three years ago. Goldsmith settles into a relaxed groove, and Enigk revisits the chamber-pop side he first delved into on his elegant 1996 solo album, Return of the Frog Queen (Sub Pop). "Iím amazed/I see the world in revolution/Within the darkness a solution/Weíll never give in," he howls, his soaring vocals and guarded optimism as forceful as ever. If The Rising Tide was a valiant last stab at modern-rock radio for Enigk, whoís now 29, then The Fire Theft is an ambitious first step into the world of adult-oriented pop.

Like Sunny Day, the Fire Theft are best heard over the course of an entire album, and although The Fire Theft isnít yet available on vinyl, it divides neatly into two sides. Side one is the lighter and more abstract of the two, with two quiet instrumentals among its first five tracks. The opening "Uncle Mountain" is a close relative of "Chain": Enigkís small orchestra dominates, and guest guitarist Billy Dolan peals off a reckless solo that should appeal to Mars Volta fans. (Expect to see a few extra touring musicians on stage with the band this Saturday.) "Houses" gets its glockenspiel and its sense of humor from the psychedelic Beatles: "I know they think Iím crazy/And believe I need a girl."

Sunny Day fans upset with their heroes for going all Sgt. Pepper on The Fire Theft might try skipping ahead to the more aggressive side two. "Waste Time" is the first song on the disc that truly rocks, and its words of longing are vintage Enigk: "And I knew that it was not our fate/But I waited all those years to hear you say/ĎI always loved you, only you.í " The frontman sits alone at the piano at the outset of "Heaven," a romantic power ballad that puts his famous falsetto to good use.

My biggest complaint about side one of The Fire Theft is that Enigkís meticulous compositions donít leave the band enough room to stretch out. They get that and then some on the euphoric instrumental "Rubber Bands": Enigk and Dolan trade heroic guitar melodies, and you can almost see the grin on the faces of Mendel and Goldsmith when they kick the song into double time. Enigk wails away until heís blue in the face on "Itís Over," the discís hair-raising apex. He might have missed his chance to cash in on emo, but six albums into his career heís continuing to build upon an already impressive rock legacy.

The Fire Theft perform this Saturday, October 18, at Axis, 13 Lansdowne Street; call (617) 262-2437.

Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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