The Fire Theft – S/T

It’s not easy to approach the debut album by The Fire Theft objectively. After all, with three-fourths of the members of indie-rock darlings Sunny Day Real Estate (minus guitarist Dan Hoerner), this will to some degree be seen as the third incarnation of the band that has already broken up twice. If not following that band’s most recent, more progressive efforts, some predicted it would go the way of lead singer Jeremy Enigk’s solo album, a pleasant and somewhat lighthearted affair.
The Fire Theft probably should be seen more akin to Sunny Day’s latest effort, The Rising Tide, than Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen. Sunny Day is not the first longstanding and creative band to tred the prog-rock waters: think ex-At the Drive-In members in Mars Volta. This release is equally progressive, yet far less aggressive than Mars Volta’s new album. The centerpiece here is the guitarwork, as it really always has been with Sunny Day, but most of the edge has been polished off, and the guitars are swathed in effects to make them shimmer and swirl like synthesizers. The drums are crisp yet relatively unimportant, and even Enigk’s trademark howling croon is often tempered by the band’s smooth approach.
Some would see these newfound changes as unfortunate, but they’re not far from The Rising Tide, really. In truth, some of these songs could have been on that last Sunny Day album, and I remain convinced that fans of that release will like this one despite the fact that at least two fans of Sunny Day’s later works that I lent this album to felt this one was a disappointment. The fault lies, perhaps, in the production here. Too much of the edge is gone, too much emphasis is placed on guitar solos, and the guitars sound, at times, rather flat and listless.
Does that mean The Fire Theft’s debut is a bad album? Not at all. The build on the opening “Uncle Mountain” portends great things, and indeed Enigk is in mid-album form as his voice accompanies swirling, effect-laden electric guitar and light, crisp percussion. “Chain” builds a more driving rock sound while also possessing some oddly contrasting and complimenting chimes. “Summertime” feels closer to Enigk’s solo album than Sunny Day, and here, perhaps, his poetic lyrics and unique voice shines, even if it does feel like perhaps he’s not reaching the soaring levels he once did. The ballad-like “Heaven” has beautiful piano and perhaps the band’s most emotional moments, and if that’s not unique enough, there’s the 14-plus-minute “Sinatra” that closes the number. It starts soft, almost dreamy (with too much emphasis on the vocals – another production issue), but then acoustic and electric guitar come in over aggressive drums, and the song really takes off.
Despite these strong songs, the album has almost equally weak ones – and while no song here is bad per se, many have some of these disappointing tracks weaknesses. On “Oceans Apart,” Enigk sounds more akin to Yes’ Jon Anderson than his usual high-flying self, and the song’s sort of trippy spaciness is a bit disconcerting while still pleasing. “Houses” feels too playful, too light and childlike – “The sun warms my mind / the moon cools my toes / all of these memories lose meaning” – and “Waste Time” is just a lulling, dulling slow-paced rock song. The slick “Carry You” is sweet, but the effects give it an almost new-agey feel.
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate results of the production of this album is in what’s missing. An entire orchestra is credited here, with everything from strings to glockenspiel, as well as a children’s choir. And, silly me, the moments that tickled my ear and hinted at strings and such ended up sounding like just more synth and guitar effects. What a shame.
No matter how many fans of Sunny Day Real Estate want The Fire Theft to be just as good as that previous band, this is a new project with obviously new and different aims. This album feels a bit more progressive and certainly more electronic. It loses the lofty stretches of the Sunny Day releases for a more warm, comforting sound. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t go far enough, and I’m left feeling unfulfilled, as if this album is just a tease, a playful experiment. Perhaps it is, and yet, perhaps The Fire Theft really pales only because it’s going to be forever compared to what came before. And it probably doesn’t deserve to be.