Upbeat Pace, Downbeat Mood: Indie Rockers on the Long March
These Chicago-based indie-rock stalwarts return with a welcome jolt. I’ve admired them since their 1988 full-length debut, Prairie School Freakout. That was recorded, its liner notes explained, in an all-night session, half of which was spent trying to fix the amplifier’s buzz, the other half giving in and getting on with rowdy, rootsy tunes mingling harmonies with feedback, Rick Rizzo’s guitar aggression with Janet Beveridge Bean’s backing vocals, and smart drumming. Along with bassist Douglas McCombs, the band weathered a major-label stint with A&M before releasing the solid trio of Ursa Major, Eighth, and Stalled Parade on smaller labels between 1994 and 2000, every three years.
They remind me of Yo La Tengo in the husband-wife pairing of guitar and drums, sweet and sour, pop and distortion. They’ve been around 30 years, as long as Yo La Tango and R.E.M., but as with the latter band, they slowed down creatively around the same time, releasing fewer songs and drifting off their early course. From one of America’s longest-lasting indie groups that had never quit, I waited every few years, hoping for a sonic spark as bright as “Prairie School Freakout” (reissued in 2006).
Eleventh Dream Day’s last album, Zeroes and Ones (2006), disappointed me. Working with the producer of the more recent of their albums, Jim O’Rourke, the band seemed too enamored of electronics. Processed tracks meandered, too remote from their sludgier roots to stick. Now joined by Mark Greenberg, the band had evolved from their guitar-rock into keyboards and moods, but earlier records blended louder and quieter songs. By contrast, Zeroes and Ones felt too digital, not melodically binary.
Riot Act opens much more promisingly. As with their first album, the tenth’s mostly live in studio, with few overdubs. “It’s time to cut the damned tree down”, goes the chorus of “Damned Tree”, and Rizzo’s irritation arrives with grit as the harsh song jerks into a rave-up guitar backed by Bean’s hectic shouts. Already, this betters any tune on their last record. “Cold Steel Now” continues this downbeat content and upbeat mood, while “Satellite” mixes distorted atmospherics fitting its title, and its tale of a breakdown on high as “snowflakes fall from the sky”. “That’s What’s Coming” recalls Rizzo’s influence of Neil Young, not in vocals so much as in style, and it steadies the album’s pace.
Most Eleventh Dream Day albums slow down in the middle; “Divining for Water” alludes to the cover art graphic of a few slackers in line at a grocery store, security camera overhead. One wears the t-shirt emblazoned “Riot Now!” in a place where none appear ready to rally. “It’s gonna take a lot more than luck”, Rizzo grumbles, to wake his nation out of its malaise. The doldrums don’t hit, yet “Tall Man” and “Sonic Reactor” settle for a mid-tempo feel which keeps the album coasting rather than accelerating. Eleventh Dream Day forces its way through the brush rather than blaze a trail by fire, and its Midwestern, determined stoicism sinks into its stolid, measured delivery. “Away with Words” enters a slower trudge into a final passage with a soaring, desolate crescendo of Rizzo and Bean’s voices, always one of the band’s strengths.
Closing with “Maybe This Time”, the title hints at hope. The tune aims to rise, but struggles against its modesty. That brave emotion’s welcome on a record that needs it as much to escape its wintry grip as the heartland of its members does.