Ten years ago Eleventh Dream Day was fast earning a reputation as Chicago's most passionate, incendiary live rock act. Today, even some folks who remember the band fondly don't realize it's still a band--not surprising, since local performances are an annual occurrence at best and EDD hasn't mounted a substantial tour in almost four years. To confuse matters further, Eleventh Dream Day's sixth full-length album, Eighth, which comes out February 11th on Thrill Jockey, is a first in more ways than one.
Back in 1989, at the peak of its local popularity, Eleventh Dream Day was the first band from Chicago's developing guitar underground to be signed by a major label. The raw, low-budget Beet was the first of three albums released under what soon became a mutually unsatisfactory agreement with Atlantic. Shortly before the follow-up, Lived to Tell, came out, the A and R rep who had signed the band left for a job at London, and shortly afterward Atlantic fired all but one member of its "progressive rock" department. The band toured extensively, but without anyone to keep the flame lit at Atlantic, the record flopped and the band went into the red. Eleventh Dream Day located a loophole in its contract and was on its way out the door when it bumped into new Atlantic honcho Danny Goldberg on his way in.
Front man Rick Rizzo says Goldberg, whose management company Gold Mountain had helped Nirvana to superstardom, promised Eleventh Dream Day the world to stay, even offering to erase the band's negative balance from the books. Convinced, EDD made El Moodio, its most ambitious, fully realized recording, with Wink O'Bannon replacing original second guitarist Baird Figi. But amid more relentless touring, Rizzo and company discovered that Atlantic was promoting El Moodio even less than it had the previous records, and before long the band was dropped.
"When we got home from that last bout of heavy touring in the summer of 1993, I just decided it was not something I wanted to keep doing," Rizzo says. "I didn't want to be a band that petered away. When you have a 14-year career, you normally don't peak at the 14th year." After that, vocalist-drummer Janet Bean (who's married to Rizzo) and bassist Doug McCombs got busy with Freakwater and Tortoise, respectively. EDD agreed to make an album, Ursa Major (1994), for the local indie Atavistic, but O'Bannon quit between recording and mixing, and though both Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and former Precious Wax Drippings guitarist Jim Garbe lent a hand for the few shows that followed, no effort was made to find a permanent replacement. But what might have been a swan song was in fact a forward leap: to a greater degree than on El Moodio, Eleventh Dream Day was making music that did more than merely chronicle its rambunctious live performances.
Meanwhile Rizzo, who has a son with Bean, returned to school for an education degree. Still, he lent his talent on guitar to records and brief tours by Red Red Meat, Edith Frost, and Palace, and continued writing. Eighth, which was originally supposed to be an EP, is a document of what he's been up to since music became a hobby instead of a job. It's the most experimental, diverse record of EDD's career--which surely has something to do with the fact that only three rehearsals preceded the sessions. The hypnotic instrumental "Writes a Letter Home," for example, is sculpted on McCombs's insistent bass line; the thickening layers of guitar and keyboard were composed in the studio. And on the largely static "View From the Rim," engineer John McEntire helps Rizzo's manic guitar solo morph into a piercing barrage of shortwave-like squeals.
The exploratory approach has enhanced rather than replaced the Eleventh Dream Day sound. Rizzo's Neil Young-derived songwriting style is evident on elegiac rockers
like "Insomnia" and "April"; Bean's honeyed voice gives the languid "For a King" the same lullabyish air as Ursa Major's "Flutter"; and on "Two Smart Cookies" she and Rizzo narrate a strained, itchy relationship a la El Moodio's "Makin Like a Rug."
Eighth is a bit of a second chance for both EDD and Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards--who was the A and R rep who signed them to Atlantic. "Their disappointments have always been business related, not music related," says Richards. "Hopefully I can meet all their needs. I can't reverse their treatment at Atlantic. I just want to make working with them an experience that they won't mind repeating." (It's doubtful they will: Thrill Jockey has put out Freakwater's last two albums and all of Tortoise's.)
Eleventh Dream Day will embark on a two-week tour of Europe at the end of April with Antietam's Tara Key on second guitar--she played with Bean in the Zoo Keepers, an early Louisville punk band. They'll almost certainly play in Chicago, too, but where and when have yet to be determined. While Rizzo still has qualms about the touring grind, he's never lost his enthusiasm for performing. "Once we're onstage and we hit that first chord, I can't help but get excited about it," he says. "I've always been able to lose myself in it, and the more lost I get, the better it feels."
Last week I mistakenly reported that original Pharaohs bassist Ealee Satterfield lived in New York; he lives in Los Angeles. It should also be noted that original saxophonist Donald Myrick is dead.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Janet Bean, Rick Rizzo, and Doug McCombs photo by Brad Miller.