Sunny Day Real Estate’s debut album, Diary, released in 1994, created quite the stir; people just lapped up their take on emocore (in fact, they were hailed as one of the genre’s progenitors). But the band broke up before work on their second, self-titled album was even completed, due in part to lead singer Jeremy Enigk’s newfound spirituality and his fears of the perils of a rock star life. Without a band to promote it, that second album fared far less well on its eventual release in 1995. Enigk then pursued his own path, releasing his first solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, in 1996. Long out of print, it’s recently been reissued, in an expanded format with bonus tracks.
Sunny Day fans were in for quite a surprise with Frog Queen. Sunny Day hewed to the standard lead guitar-rhythm guitar-bass-drums rock band set up. On Frog Queen, Enigk played all those instruments himself, backed by a 21-piece orchestra, an addition that made the songs grandiose and majestic. The music’s still dreamy, but there’s also an undercurrent of tension throughout. Songs might start out sounding blissful, but raging emotions are likely to surface somewhere along the way. Enigk’s voice in particular can start out crooning, and then get increasingly edgy and agitated, as the violins saw away in the background. It makes listening to the album something of an unsettling experience.
A recent Pitchfork review drew comparisons to the music of Neutral Milk Hotel and Grizzly Bear. But to these ears, the artist that came to mind was Pink Floyd co-founder Syd Barrett, particularly his two solo albums (released after the Floyd couldn’t handle his instability in the group), startling works of fractured creation that spiraled off into unknown territory. Similarly, this album puts tormented, raw emotion fully on display, making it disturbing, but also intriguing — the kind of anguished yet compelling music that you can’t turn away from. Is there a secret to be revealed, a code you can crack? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a puzzle that keeps pulling you back in to see if you can solve it.
The five bonus tracks are from a radio session Enigk recorded with KNDD. They’re interesting because they’re not quite as frantic as the album versions, giving you an idea of how the songs would’ve sounded live. Frog Queen is available on CD, colored vinyl, or digital only.