The Over/Under: Sunny Day Real Estate

Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate somehow managed to create a footprint far exceeding what would reasonably be expected of a group that produced a mere handful of albums during its relatively short tenure (1992-95 as an original quartet, then a reunion from 1997-2001 reduced to a trio). The band’s then-unique admixture of churning, guitar-driven rock, plaintive and nakedly emotional vocals (sometimes sung, sometimes screamed) and lyrics that made clear the spiritual questing of frontman Jeremy Enigk (read our 2006 Q&A with him) would ultimately earn SDRE the label “godfathers of emo,” which for better or worse would forever link it to lesser lights such as Jimmy Eat World and Fall Out Boy, but more appropriately, to similarly minded forebears such as Fugazi. After releasing two beloved but quirky full-lengths on Sub Pop back in the early ‘90s, the quartet dissolved into a puddle of timeworn rock-music clichés: Enigk declared himself born again (and in an early, prescient move, told the world about it through a post on the Internet), the rhythm section departed and hooked up with Dave Grohl (who, by then, had discovered his post-Nirvana special purpose via the Foo Fighters), and eventually, they wandered separate paths for a decade or so before finding their way back to one another and to stages across North America for a recent sold-out reunion tour, the first shows the band had played in its original form since 1995. It may be stretching things to suggest that an act better known for its influences than for any chart hits actually possesses anything in its catalog remotely overrated or underrated, and yet SDRE has inspired such a passionately devoted fanbase that it’s clear there are, in fact, peaks and valleys throughout its sonic history, which leads us down the usual path of charting the group’s five most overrated and five most underrated tracks.

:: The Five Most Overrated Sunny Day Real Estate Songs
1.“Seven” (1994)

Diary, SDRE’s debut, has been called “the album that made emo accessible to the masses,” and while this is probably just the latter-day hype machine assigning a retrospective value to something that wasn’t nearly as High Concept back when it was created (emo existed, both as a term and as a style deep within the punk underground, before Sunny Day existed), it is fair to say that without this release, there would probably be no Paramore or Dashboard Confessional. (Diary also remains one of the best-selling items in the Sub Pop catalog, at more than 230,000 copies and counting, including its recent re-release.) But you can hear the band’s influences on the album’s opening cut, “Seven,” more clearly than you can hear the band itself. That lead line is guitarist Dan Hoerner’s best Edge impersonation, and there’s Enigk paying tribute vocally to Ian MacKaye and the Dischord massive (if sounding more melodic than they ever possibly could). Not a bad track, but given hugely disproportionate props by the band’s cult and not as compelling as what SDRE would ultimate produce.

2. “In Circles” (1994)
As long as Sunny Day continues as an entity, “In Circles”—and its, uh, circular, repeating six-string motif and loud/quiet/loud shapeshifting sonic swings—will remain an indispensible part of its encore lineup. In fact, it’s become the band’s signature song. But it bears uncomfortably more in common with the grunge backdrop that surrounded it at the time (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) than the group’s latter-day work, a tad too rock-by-numbers when the epic sweep and ambition of SDRE’s catalog unfolded later on.

3. “The Prophet” (1998)
By the time How It Feels To Be Something On was released, Sunny Day had broken up, Enigk had exhausted the first phase of his solo ambitions, and the band had somewhat reluctantly reformed around a core nucleus of only three members (Enigk, Hoerner and drummer William Goldsmith, as bassist Nate Mendel continued to toil as a full-fledged member of the Foo Fighters). The album was something of a mixed bag in that it fully demonstrated Enigk’s unquestioned growth as a singer and songwriter; that said, his never-ending quest for enlightenment gave How It Feels a somewhat vague and mystical worldview, with tracks such as “The Prophet” dipping further into prog (and flaunting a Middle Eastern-style chant, perhaps the band’s most forced musical moment) than its previous work.

4. “Friday” (1995)
SDRE’s cult would hold that LP2 (a.k.a. The Pink Album, so named because of the single-hued color of its album art) is the group’s Black Album, an unheard, underrated and unbelievably great set of songs that coulda, woulda, shoulda catapulted the quartet into the rock stratosphere had only it registered with the masses and the band remained intact. In hindsight, the album’s lead cut, “Friday,” tells a slightly different story: a beautifully intricate guitar figure buried beneath an avalanche of distortion, with lyrics (“Some other candy matrimony/That strips the night I breathe/Maybe next time”) that promised more than they delivered. For sure, SDRE’s potential was great, and the high hopes for the band were sabotaged by its premature demise, but the cult probably doth protest too much. Maybe next time, indeed?

5. “Everlong” (1997)
I know I’m cheating here; Sunny Day Real Estate is a far cry from the Foo Fighters, but Grohl did steal its rhythm section lock, stock and barrel when SDRE imploded, and his second FF release, The Colour And The Shape, actually serves as the “band’s” official release as a collaborative entity. If you listen closely, you can hear the relentless rhythms and churning underpinnings down around 110 Hz that characterized SDRE’s first two albums; of course, by the time the song overtook alt-rock radio and its freakishly carny-like video had invaded MTV, Goldsmith was long gone in favor of former Alanis Morrissette sideman Taylor Hawkins. Undoubtedly the best-selling thing that members of SDRE ever appeared on, not that we really care.

:: The Five Most Underrated Sunny Day Real Estate Songs
1.“One” (2000)

Herein lies the end of the line: SDRE Phase II finally called “time” after the release of the band’s fourth studio album, The Rising Tide, which in hindsight represents the pinnacle of the group’s many achievements, the richest instantiation of its sound and vision. Anthemic, sweeping and uncompromising, the swells of sound emanating from Hoerner’s massed guitars coupled with Enigk’s most commanding lyrical platform to date (“And it’s strange how we’re selling our time and we wait … And in the end we all are one”) result in the best songs the band would pen as a collective. Unfortunately, SDRE’s label, Time Bomb, had distribution woes that essentially guaranteed The Rising Tide would never receive a fair hearing. Much more than LP2, this is the band’s most underrated work, and therefore “One” is its most underrated song.

2. “Every Shining Time You Arrive” (1998)
Once Enigk had posted his born-again hopes and dreams for all the world to see, he just as quickly retreated to the bunker of obfuscation in an attempt to retain some of the lessons (and miracles) just for himself. This track, from How It Feels To Be Something On, is a good example of a moment when all of this worked to his advantage: a beautiful acoustic ballad shot through with one of Enigk’s ineffably sad vocals and guitars from Hoerner that served as surgical tools connecting the song’s vague, questing lyrics (“So the story’s beyond our grasp, we were climbing forever, an infinite task/Shoulders straining with the endless toil, we’re nothing more than a feather moving in the wind”; Robert Plant, white courtesy telephone, please) to the beating heart of the melody.

3. “Song About An Angel” (1994)
Diary’s best track by far, an almost impossibly delicate rumination on the sacred and profane that predated Enigk’s spiritual awakening but nonetheless hewed to many of his same core themes of grander meaning and discovery. As Hoerner said in a recent interview, “One of the first songs we wrote as a band was ‘Song About An Angel.’ Don’t you get it? We were trying to communicate about things that are deep in our souls, and we don’t even know how to talk about it, hardly anybody knows how to talk about it intelligently. I love bands that are able to explore those things, talk about things that matter.” No matter how you interpret this song’s meaning, the fact that SDRE cared that it mattered (and so in such listenable fashion) made the band instantly more interesting than 90 percent of its peers.

4. “Uncle Mountain” (2003)
OK, I’m cheating a little bit here as well, but not nearly as much as with the “overrated” section: The Fire Theft served as an SDRE reunion in but name only, a collaboration between Enigk, Goldsmith and Mendel that finally laid bare Enigk’s debt to The Almighty in service of a 13-song suite that was, at once, way more prog and yet way more rocking than anything they’d done together since Diary. “Uncle Mountain” is the album’s lead track, and holy scheiss, it’s a keeper: a big, sweeping orchestral piece (replete with strings, massed guitars and Enigk’s gigantic vocals) in service of a big, sweeping topic. “I’m stuck here in the middle/At war with good and evil … Don’t wanna spend my time being afraid of dying/I really wanna do good.” By the time Enigk literally screams “I want god, if god wants me,” you get the feeling that he really means it, man. One big “wow” of a recorded moment in a career practically chock full of them.

5. “Abegail Anne” (1996)
Right after Sunny Day’s initial breakup, Enigk enthusiastically threw himself into his solo career, resulting in Return Of The Frog Queen, a determinedly eccentric, folk-based exploration of themes ranging from childlike fascinations with fantasy-world characters (e.g., said frog queen) to vaguely articulated explosions of soul in search of meaning in the world’s fluffy, clustered cloud formations (“Explain,” “Shade And The Black Hat”). Coming as it did after his up-and-coming band’s messy break, reviewers at the time were quick to compare the album to other equally left-field almanacs of whimsy and chaos: Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, Skip Spence’s Oar, Nick Drake’s entire oeuvre. In hindsight, these assessments mostly miss the mark. Enigk hadn’t damaged himself, wasn’t teetering on the edge of sanity, but was instead exploring a vein of music to which his extraordinary voice was well suited but hadn’t previously been paired. “Abegail Anne,” the album’s lead cut, was a magical, groundbreaking bit of spare folk and backing orchestration that could just as easily have come from the Fairport Convention camp as from one of the most original voices to emerge from the ‘90s.

—Corey duBrowa

9 replies on “The Over/Under: Sunny Day Real Estate”

I’m not sure I can get behind calling “Seven” or “In Circles” overrated, but really, they’re about the only SDRE songs rated enough to do so. As much as I love Return of the Frog Queen, I would’ve loved to have seen another How it Feels to Be Something On track replace “Abigail Anne” in the underrated column. In my opinion, it’s Sunny Day’s finest hour and rarely gets it’s due. “Pillars” in particular is subtle, nuanced and as huge as any song they’ve ever put together, but in a completely different way than the big songs on Diary. How it Feels… was the record where they had found a way to incorporate prog influences while still retaining their identity as a band and stands as the only “reunion” album I can remember where the promise of members coming back together and making a new statement incorporating everything they’ve learned since the original breakup was actually fulfilled.

Totally on board with this one. The Rising Tide and Fire Theft albums are so powerful and moving. Give them another few listens if you’re a SDRE fan who clings too tightly to the debut…

Theo — I actually saw SDRE in Seattle almost right at the very beginning (a couple of times)… which probably would have been 93 now that I think about it.

cool. i can still remember listening to them on cassette tape in my buddy’s volkswagon on my first-ever roadtrip. it was the line you wrote “…while this is probably just the latter-day hype machine assigning a retrospective value to something that wasn’t nearly as High Concept back when it was created (emo existed, both as a term and as a style deep within the punk underground, before Sunny Day existed),” that sounded like you came to sunny day after their first incarnation. i can remember emo coming straight out of the hard core movement and the small circle of friends that listened to emo-core as it was dubbed back then. as you said, emo was certainly around before sunny day (rites of spring, indian summer, eucalyptus…), but i don’t think that much has been added to the importance of ‘diary’ due to any amount of retrospect or hype-machines. those of us listening to hard core and emo core recognized right away what a special album ‘diary’ was…whether on cassette tape or no. (and: the early nineties in seattle must have been fun. nice.)

Love the comment about Everlong being a SDRE song. I knew I liked that song more than the typical Foo Fighters fare for some reason. As for all this sentimental blah blah blah… being a SDRE fan still… just makes me feel old. Most of the kids into “emo” or indie stuff these days can’t seem to appreciate SDRE any more than anyone could back in the day. As a band they are mostly just underrated. Blaming SDRE for Jimmy Eat World is treasonous. Jeremy’s “Lewis Hollow” from Return of the Frog Queen was somehow replaced by “Abegail Anne”? Don’t agree.

The #1 song I think that got overlooked way too much was ‘Roses in Water.’ that song is truly amazing. The melody and the rhythm are just so odd, it’s great!

Magnet – stop posting other bands’ songs for the Over/Under feature. Came here for SDRE, not Foo Fighters or Fire Theft. Also, “In Circles” is arguably their best song, come on. Popular doesn’t mean overrated.

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