This Washington foursome, the object of an abundance of next-big-thing excitement at the onset of its brief career, wasted no time giving off contradictory signals of populist intent and elitist values. Sunny Day Real Estate’s everyman side prompted the band to craft cinematic, emotionally draining anthems redolent of early U2; its obsession with obscurity begat a strident refusal to give songs “proper” titles: Instead, the series of singles that preceded the band’s full-length bow were differentiated only by numerics — “Song #2,” “Song #3″…straight through to an impressively rich pairing (on their own One Day I Stopped Breathing label) of “Song #8” and “Song #9.”
With that mostly (there are songs called “47” and “48”) out of its system, the band recorded the sweeping Diary, an album that’s not nearly as confessional in tone as the title might indicate. Still, it’s easy to get lost within guitarist Jeremy Enigk’s mystic excursions: while not even remotely as gifted a singer, he frequently recalls Van Morrison in his phrasing and mantra-like repetition of key couplets (particularly on the steep trajectories of “Seven” and “Grendel”), not to mention the tangibly spiritual subject matter of tracks like “Song About an Angel”). When Enigk announced his conversion to born-again Christianity, the latter aspect began to dominate his songwriting to too great an extent for the other members, and the band split shortly after Diary was released. The second album seems to have been cobbled together from demos and such, an (under-)production value that’s particularly vexing for a band this dramatically inclined. In 1995, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith joined Dave Grohl and Pat Smear in Foo Fighters.
Whatever is going on in Enigk’s life, his delectable solo debut makes no obvious reference to spirituality of any sort. Following Cardinal’s lead towards a rapprochement with psychedelic ’60s chamber pop by using strings, horns, harpsichord and harmonies, the multifarious auteur (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and flawed vocals) dabbles in various idioms on Return of the Frog Queen with abundant skill and few specific reference points. (He matches the sound with such quizzically oblique word paintings as “Shade and the Black Hat” and “Lewis Hollow.”) Other than some Beatlisms, the record occasionally suggests how Syd Barrett might have sounded had he been able to mount a full-fledged production effort, but there’s so much else going on here that any sense of nostalgia quickly evaporates. Magical.