By the measure of popular acceptance and record company balance sheets, Eleventh Dream Day’s place in the alt-rock annals is among the most frustrating could’ve-beens. But to a healthy assortment of fans and critics, the Chicago band is a class act all the way, an underrated and reliable font of powerful, expressive rock’n’roll. Formed by eventual spouses Rick Rizzo (guitar, vocals) and Janet Beveridge Bean (drums, vocals), plus bassist Douglas McCombs and guitarist Baird Figi, Eleventh Dream Day grew considerably over the years, although their heritage — the sonic family tree that includes the Velvets, Neil Young and Television, with added touches of Detroit noise, backwater blues, Midwestern garage-pop and hillbilly ache — remained fairly constant.
The evolution began immediately after the first EP, a well-written set of compact guitar-rockers that merely infers the live group’s blue-flame intensity. “Walking Through the Barrel of a Gun,” the first track, defines the Dream Day style. Mixing trashy ’60s psychedelia with a drop of country-western blood, the song places an anonymous character into a surreal crisis; imagine a Jim Thompson novel sung by Gene Pitney with Neil Young on guitar.
Prairie School Freakout puts the band’s rock’n’roll primitivist thesis into execution. The entire album was recorded in six hours one night, “half of the time spent trying to fix the wild buzz coming out of Rick’s amp,” according to the liner notes. “We finally gave up and decided to make amp buzz the theme of the record.” The album is slightly more elegant than roadkill. Guitarists Rizzo and Baird Figi trade leads that could saw down a petrified forest; the lyrics, when decipherable through Rizzo’s strangulations, depict lonesome roads, empty rooms and horror-film traumas filled with the same eerie dread as the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Enter Atlantic Records. Beet is less extreme, though still vital; producer Gary Waleik (Big Dipper) coaxes the songs out of hiding without losing the intrinsic noisiness of the Eleventh Dream Day experience. Both Rizzo and his wife, drummer/singer Janet Beveridge Bean, are splendid lyricists, writing cagey little narratives that trace characters through the gloomy and mysterious recesses of their own minds and the weird America around them. Bean’s “Bagdad’s Last Ride” follows a lonelyheart named Hank from the bus to the racetrack, where he risks it all; Rizzo’s “Love to Hate to Love” takes a two-second moment when a girl curses at her boyfriend and dissects the layers of thought and emotion. As with Prairie School Freakout, the lack of textural variation becomes a bit daunting after a while; listen to these albums while driving, and let the clogged, chaotic sounds fly loose through an open window. (The CD adds Figi’s “Seiche” as a bonus.) The promo-only vinyl Borscht comes from the WXRT radio broadcast of a January 1990 show at Chicago’s Lounge Ax.
Lived to Tell offers more good stuff to wallow in but a bit less to grab onto. The violently echoing slide guitar in “Dream of a Sleeping Sheep” is as sick and mean as anything on Prairie School Freakout, and the power-rocking “Rose of Jericho” builds to its moment of release with scientific precision. But other songs waver instead of stampede; for the first time, the band seems to know where they’re going, and that takes some joy out of the ride. Significantly, Bean is a stronger factor here, moving beyond her usual soaring harmonies to write and sing lead more frequently. (She’d begun a side project, the country duo Freakwater with a fellow Kentucky native, guitarist and Dream Day cover artist Catherine Ann Irwin.)
By 1992, Eleventh Dream Day had a nice little body of work and a phonebook-sized press file, but not much else. The uncertain future and shitty road existence drove Baird Figi back to a normal life. (Rizzo and Bean managed one of those, too — they had a child together — but kept the band going.) As of El Moodio, Figi’s slot was filled by Kentucky homeboy Matthew “Wink” O’Bannon (also of Bodeco, with a solo disc to his credit as well), which made a difference, albeit one that has as much to do with Rizzo’s songwriting as the guitar playing. Bean’s co- writing contributes a couple of relentlessly memorable raveups (“Makin’ Like a Rug” and “After This Time Is Gone”), but the record’s overall tone is brooding and reflective, with results that vary from thrillingly pretty (“Motherland”) and subtly mind-bending (“The Raft”) to extra long (“Honeyslide,” which is lovely nonetheless) and overly Youngian (“Rubberband”).
That was enough for Atlantic, and the band turned to European/indie connections (which came to include overseas gigs with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan sitting in). Ursa Major was mixed and recorded, respectively, by subterranean Chicago knob-twirlers Brad Wood and John McEntire, the latter of whom plays in Tortoise, the avant instrumental band co-founded by McCombs. An arty record that picks up from its predecessor’s most meandering tendencies, Ursa Major — which is imbued by feelings of both adventure and exhaustion — suffers greatly from a deliberate lack of pop songcraft, though it delivers on a series of textured, slowly unfolding axe workouts. (Atavistic also released a CD EP of the album’s “Flutter.”)