Ed's Redeeming Qualities inhabits a netherworld between artful design and inartful execution. They're basically a folk band, but they don't really sing ballads, have no use for their musical predecessors, and occasionally pep up a song with a distorted electric guitar. They have the sensibility of a rock band--a smarty-pants college-type rock band--but who ever heard of a rock band with ukulele, violin, and bongos as lead instruments, a rock band that rhymes "tube socks" with "Clorox," a rock band that has accomplished the extraordinary literary hat trick of having all of its members published in Gordon Lish's Quarterly?
The band's name refers to Ed (who doesn't exist) and his habit of stacking the dishes after he washes them and sometimes saying what he thinks, according to a short poem on the back of the group's T-shirts. Ed's redeeming qualities, it turns out, are the band members' as well: they are rather orderly in their manner, and they too attempt to say what's on their minds--with impressive lyrical ability.
The ensemble of Ohio natives came together in New Hampshire, thanks to a fiction-writing workshop attended by Dan Leone, the ukulele player, and Carrie Bradley, the violinist. Dan's brother Dom was close by in a writing program in Vermont. Also in the neighborhood was bongo player Neno Perrotta, a friend of the Leones from yet another writing workshop in Ohio. Dom Leone got started writing songs first, everyone else joined in, and soon the band was touring in New England.
But Dom Leone, sadly, died of cancer in 1989. The band moved to San Francisco shortly afterward. Chicago's Flying Fish record company had been in touch with the group for some time, but, says the label's Seymour Guenther, there was a question whether Ed's would continue in the wake of the death of its leader. But in the course of the group's trip across the U.S. to the Bay Area, Ed's played its first Chicago gigs--a riotous couple of nights at Lounge Ax--and met with the label to say that the remaining trio would continue, and a deal was cut.
The album that resulted, More Bad Times, was a warped, witty, and sometimes moving exposition of modern alternative folk rock: what seem at first to be novelty songs wend their way deep into your subconscious, where they twist and turn and finally take on deeper meanings. In this way, "Lawn Dart" becomes an epic, "A Little Thing" an emotional holocaust, and the title track a love song for the ages.
The new It's All Good News charts similar territory. Though not as immediately friendly as its predecessor, it's less quirky and more polished: standouts include a song by Bradley about a guy with a crush on the nurse who takes his blood donations ("Blood Bank Man"); Perrotta and Leone's "Lawyers and Truckers" ("She worked in a diner cooking eggs and ham / She hated truckers and that's what I am"); and Perrotta and Bradley's "Falls Church, Virginia," about the odyssey of a grump.
More Bad Times, despite adulatory reviews, sold only 3,000 copies, a victim perhaps of its musical unclassifiability. It got almost no airplay. Guenther thinks better things will come of Good News, particularly as the 18-year-old folk label gets better at dealing with a few new rock-oriented bands.
Ed's Redeeming Qualities plays tonight at the Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln, beginning sometime after 9:30. Example: None opens, and tickets are $4. Call 549-5549 for more.