Friday, December 5, 2008

Jeremy Enigk. Return of the Frog Queen (Sub Pop, 1996)

"Open eyes to see it all/ I've known you at six feet tall."

Sunny Day Real Estate were one of the '90s' best groups, turning out epic, incredibly inventive and compelling emo, with a large sound and larger hooks. They were the happy union of Fugazi and Queen, and frontman Jeremy Enigk -- he of the histrionic vocal style and Christian tendencies -- was a huge part of their sound and image. Sunny Day were technically tight, no doubt, but Enigk's high school genius lyrics and helium voice breathed life and light into the razor sharp compositions. On 1994's Diary and 1995's unnamed "Pink Album," songs like Seven, "In Circles," and "8" whipped indie kids everywhere into a frenzy, and for good reason. The sound was stadium-sized guitar rock minus the overbearing pomposity and plus some considerable lyrical and instrumental intelligence.

After releasing the "Pink Album," Sunny Day took a break, and rumor had it that Enigk had found Jesus (the rumors turned out to be true). I was pretty bummed, figuring that would be the end of the band. I was wrong, of course: they returned a few years later with 1998's passable How It Feels To Be Something On, and again with the not-so-hot The Rising Tide in 2000. My ambivalence to these records is no doubt informed by the sheer awesomeness of Sunny Day's first two LPs and the unreasonable expectation that their later work could live up to them.

However, Jeremy Enigk was up to something during Sunny Day's '95-'98 hiatus. And here's a brief story about how I found out about it:

In 1996, I was a sophomore at William & Mary. One fall weekend, I and some friends decided to roadtrip up to Charlottesville to see Soul Coughing (I know, I know: college). We were killing time before the show, doing some record shopping at Plan 9, and there was a poster for the show in the window, indicating that Jeremy Enigk was gonna be opening for Soul Coughing. I was stoked (and confused: Jeremy Enigk with Soul Coughing? Weird), and started looking forward to some Sunny Day-style emo guitar heroics. Later, though, as we piled into the club, there was some unnerving evidence on display: Enigk was helping a string quartet and some woodwind players get settled before his set. Clearly Sunny Day this was not. I was skeptical.

And I shouldn't have been. Though it certainly sounded nothing like Sunny Day Real Estate, what Enigk gave us was effing fantastic. Largely acoustic, augmented with cellos and violins, upright bass, flutes, piccolos, horns, harps, and other non-rock instruments, it was quietly bombastic and incredibly resonant. And hooky. And haunting. I bought the record then and there.

And the record was Return of the Frog Queen. Over the years, I've repeatedly returned to this baroque, chamber-emo collection, and every time I'm blown away by how hard it hits without resorting to extreme amplification or distortion. All of its considerable powers lie in its structure and delivery. On song after song, Return of the Frog Queen hands over the goods, a subtly devastating LP that sounds not only unlike what you'd expect, but unlike much of anything before or since, testament to Enigk's unique vision and talents.

Album opener Abigail Anne is intensely engaging, building two rickety chords into a towering beast of a song. It's got a casually catchy melody and a relentless mid-tempo momentum that's impossible to put out of your head, using crashing drums and a pizzicato string section to transform the tune from a delicate melody into a rousing, unnerving shanty. "Return of the Frog Queen" is a sweet-n-sad shamble, moving from loose acoustic strums into driving orchestral pop. The delicate melodies of "Lewis Hollow" and "Lizard" give way to the darkly percussive "Carnival," a song whose airy woodwind and string sections undercut the angry vocals and dirty electric rhythm guitar. "Explain" is probably the brightest song on the record, a sunny six-string ramble hinting at clouds on the horizon, while the piano-driven Shade and the Black Hat is oversized
drama, complete with sweeping cellos and Enigk's most heated vocal delivery of the LP.

Return of the Frog Queen is one of the most pleasant surprises of my listening life, an album that utterly confounded my expectations but has nevertheless become a favorite. If you've ever listened to Sunny Day Real Estate (which, if you haven't, you should do post haste) but never given this album a spin, think again and track it down. Though it's lacking Sunny Day's amplified sonic punch, it manages to pack an audible wallop.