By the time Jeremy Enigk played his last song Monday afternoon at the Triple Door, one thing was clear. The former Sunny Day Real Estate frontman wants to be more than the legacy of his ex-band. He's now a solo artist, inching away from his trademark prog-rock style and almost entering singer-songwriter territory.
Monday's show -- one of KEXP's listener appreciation events -- was Enigk's first chance to play material off OK Bear, his brand-new album released today on Lewis Hollow. But it was also a chance to see Enigk in rare form: Performing with the 13-piece Seattle Rock Orchestra. As KEXP's Cheryl Waters pointed out while introducing Enigk, "it's a format we haven't seen in a decade."
The last time Enigk played that kind of symphonic rock was on 1996's Return of the Frog Queen, the solo album he recorded while on hiatus from Sunny Day Real Estate. That album's sweeping songs were backed by a 21-piece orchestra.
Played live, the songs from OK Bear are almost as dramatic as those off Frog Queen. Enigk played a full-size grand piano during some songs, his heavy crescendos and strained falsetto paired with violins and cellos. On songs like "April Storm," Enigk strummed an acoustic guitar while the orchestra matched the more stripped-down sound.
On record, OK Bear is markedly less symphonic as Frog Queen or even 2006's World Waits. The album isn't really symphonic at all. It's still just as dramatic and melancholy, but those moods are created by Enigk's lyrics and the tension in his voice. "Same Side Imaginary" -- arguably the best song on OK Bear -- channels the same lyrical intensity that made every song off SDRE's Diary so stirring. Sung over plucked guitar strings, the words sound like criticism of Enigk's over-produced previous solo releases: "They've got it all/But they ain't got emotion."
That shift from orchestral prog-rock to simpler, more honest songwriting was most obvious when Enigk played his last song of Monday's set. After playing four songs from his new album, he performed "Explain" off Frog Queen. (He also referred to it as "a song from my first album," widening distance between himself and SDRE.) "Explain" is a beautiful song about love and loss, but it's the sort of composition that needs the orchestra to sound right. Without the extra stringed and brass instruments, the fluctuations in pitch sound misplaced; with them, the song makes sense.
But OK Bear's songs don't need the extra instruments. They're best when they're simple, when Enigk's humbleness and awkardness -- he said only a handful of words to the audience on Monday -- can shine through.
Enigk plays a record release party May 14 at Neumos.