The idea of ‘cult’ bands is aggravatingly vague to start with, and probably more overused than ‘genius’ in the chatter of music nerds. Even bearing this in mind, it seems wrong to describe Eleventh Dream Day this way, even though they have many of its hallmarks. Cultness, in a rock context, tends to imply an act whom not that many folks have actually heard, but who inspire passion among this small minority. EDD, a Chicago-based quartet, have existed since 1983 and, in what might be a case of history being written by the winners, seem doomed to be remembered as an indie rock band that didn’t step up like many of their peers. If that alone conferred cult status, you could bestow the same on about 98 per cent of bands throughout history.
However. This review happens to be written by someone who holds the opinion that Prairie School Freakout, the 1988 debut album by Eleventh Dream Day, is a better record than anything The Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo, Mercury Rev or Pavement – all similarly venerable, all vastly more bankable – have ever released. I’m not alone in adoring its countrified buzzing wonder (august rock critic Greil Marcus was probably its biggest booster at the time), and it’s the most highly-regarded EDD LP, but it’s also a fair bet that most fans of the four bands mentioned there have no idea what Prairie School Freakout is. Sometimes you can do naught but shake your head at the wider world missing out on a great thing, and settle for telling people, through the medium of the record review, that 23 years on, this band are still attempting to summon up that same combo of ennui and energy – and doing a pretty good job of it.
Riot Now!, wrapped in an uncharacteristic People Of Walmart-esque cartoon sleeve, is the first Eleventh Dream Day album since 2006 – Zeroes And Ones having been their first album since 2000. Despite this, it was recorded with deliberate haste, even rivalling Prairie…, which was laid down in six hours. There is, perhaps, something lightly ersatz about these three middle-aged men and one middle-aged woman attempting to recreate the budget-and-circumstance-driven conditions of their punky twenties. (In the case of bassist Doug McCombs, this dismissive attitude towards studio niceties is pretty much the polar opposite to how his better-known band, Tortoise, operate – which may explain why he still feels inclined to loosen a valve every few years by rocking out with these guys.)
Clock rolling backwards or no, though, EDD can still gnarl out with expertise. Rick Rizzo still plays some of the best, if you will, post-Neil Young guitar on offer anywhere, marrying it to exasperated polemic on songs like ‘Damned Tree’, the album opener, and ‘Divining For Water’ (“The smarter you get, the less it seems / That anybody cares about your dreams”). Sling around some Tom Verlaine and ZZ Top while you’re at it, and you’ve got the last few minutes of ‘Sonic Reactor’.
As has generally been the case with this band’s records, even the most punky and pounding turns can be offset by a certain dreaminess and ethereality. This is largely down to Janet Beveridge Bean, who you may also know as the singer in sometimes great slo-mo country band Freakwater, and her vocals. ‘Cold Steel Grey’, in most respects a rambunctious oil-smeared garage rock banger, practically takes on a new form when Bean merely holds a note. Conversely, there’s ‘Away With Words’, the one time Riot Now! is content to drop to a hush – even with Bean lamenting in the background, it ends up the most stolidly classic rock song on the record.
Yet while Eleventh Dream Day clearly know and adore their Seventies arena-packers, they’re neither as indulgent (this album, like all of theirs, comes in around the 45-minute mark) or as polished as that implies. Leanness is their ideal body state, dirt under the fingernails a sign of rude health. No doubt Riot Now! will only be purchased by those who know, but it’s a commendable album.
7Noel Gardner's Score