Sub Pop Records recently reissued Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen, a circa-96 solo debut whose first printing remains, justifiably, a much-sought-after cult classic. It also has become, over the years, a rather interesting point of departure from Enigk’s tenure with the on-again/off-again Sunny Day Real Estate and a lightning rod for dialogue about Enigk’s relationship with Christianity. That’s a tall order for any LP but, all these years later, the record still stands up well — and even seems to presage the shape of what followed Sunny Day’s Diary in the world of indie rock.
On tracks like the opener ”Abegail Anne” or ”Explain,” Enigk’s mission is writ large: tender acoustics blending into grandiose, sometimes-borderline-baroque chamber pop. The arrangements — backed, it seems, by a rather able and rather full orchestra — are colorful but not garish, supplementing Enigk’s diaphragm-pushing wails. Elsewhere, on the spare ”Lewis Hollow,” he poses as a foil to Kozelek’s Red House Painters, with solo acoustics and whispered leads taking the spotlight, only occasionally backed by hints of cello or violin.
The areas where I think Enigk remains a little more timeless are where he pulls out the stops and goes full art-house — take ”Carnival,” which offers a vampy electric guitar line underneath its off-time drum descents and flute-and-organ whistling. The effect is stagy, even self-conscious of its construction, but it’s also alarmingly engaging; when Enigk spits out lines like ”no one knows my name” or ”the lines made me perfect,” you can feel the acid land on the skin. ”Shade and the Black Hat,” another dressed-up affair, offers a piano backbone and lush strings that propel the narrative forward. (”Won’t you stay tonight?” Enigk roars at one point. Indeed.)
There are parts that show their age, of course, and I’m looking mostly at the closer ”Fallen Heart,” a minor piece that features, quite prominently, the reverse-looping of a ballad on analog tape, possible even a four-track cassette. ”Call Me Steam,” though, might be the record’s only lull — and it seems designed with that intention. (The “expanded edition” comes with a handful of “demo” sessions that don’t add to the story but do add to the color.)
What we need to talk about, though, is where Frog Queen fits in the indie-rock canon and, in that respect, it owes more to freak-folk or Andrew Bird or Neutral Milk Hotel — the arrival of whose In The Aeroplane Over The Sea it beats out by a whole year — than Diary or Sunny Day’s post-resurrection work. Frog Queen is hardly the stuff of a Sunny Day after-thought and Enigk clearly established himself here, as elsewhere, as a creative force beyond the structures of an emo band. It’s not an epic in the sense of a long-form song-cycle, but Enigk is clearly working on something larger than he ever had constructed previously, and, for that alone, I welcome the Frog Queen’s return.