Graded on a Curve: Eleventh Dream Day, Works for Tomorrow

Chicago scene veterans Eleventh Dream Day are back and in typically inspired form. One of the finer exponents from the US rock underground of the 1980s, they’ve undergone numerous changes over the decades while remaining focused on delivering fiery Neil Young-descended rock. Works for Tomorrow adds a second guitarist to the equation as the group chalks up another terrific effort. It’s out now on Thrill Jockey.

Eleventh Dream Day’s existence has roots in early-‘80s Kentucky, though they fully came together after Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean moved to the Windy City; their debut ’87 EP was conceived by Rizzo on guitar and vocals, Bean on drums and vocals, Baird Figi on guitar, and Douglas McCombs on bass. Subsequently, they decamped to Louisville and in six hours produced a cornerstone in the band’s discography.

‘88’s Prairie School Freakout endures as an absolute killer in the chronicles of post-Crazy Horse/Dream Syndicate melodic burn, and for those interested in a full picture of the independent scene of the ‘80s it remains an essential disc. Critically praised and not easy to find (alongside “Eleventh Dream Day” and ‘89’s “Wayne” EPs it was released on the small Amoeba imprint), it served as their gateway to a contract with a major label.

Beet arrived via Atlantic Records in ’89, frankly an odd time for a band of Eleventh Dream Day’s ilk to be found on the roster of such an enterprise. If a byproduct of a retrospectively sexy musical movement, EDD’s true contemporaries were Rizzo and Bean’s Kentucky cohorts Antietam, Seattle’s The Walkabouts, Boston’s Big Dipper, and Jersey’s Yo La Tengo, all groups that came out the other side of the punk uprising with a heightened understanding of what was valuable in “Classic” rock forms.

Clearly Eleventh Dream Day got signed on strength of sound rather than mere buzz; in fact, the A&R rep responsible was none other than future Thrill Jockey founder Bettina Richards. But non-buzz can simply make promoting records that much harder, and unsurprisingly Atlantic faltered, the situation exacerbated by sympathetic execs Peter Koepke and Richards moving to London Records.

Eleventh Dream Day did manage a batch of terrific full-lengths across the Atlantic run as Rizzo and Bean honed a tandem vocal approach at times reminiscent of John Doe and Exene. In ’91 Lived to Tell joined Beet and Borsch, a radio station promo of a live gig at Chicago’s Lounge Ax, and in terms of songwriting and energy the output from this era stands amongst their best.

While touring for Lived to Tell Figi left and was replaced by Bodeco’s Wink O’Bannon. Freed from their contract through label apathy, they recorded an album with producer Brad Wood before new Atlantic chief Danny Goldberg paid a visit and convinced them to return to the fold for another go-round; fresh sessions and the underrated/too seldom heard El Moodio was the result, its modest initial sales figures getting them unceremoniously dropped.

Over two decades later the excellent Wood material was issued on vinyl as New Moodio by Comedy Minus One. Emancipated from Atlantic for good, Eleventh Dream Day issued Ursa Major in ’94 on indie City Slang. Afterward O’Bannon returned to Bedeco, and in ’97 the trio incarnation of EDD released Eighth on Thrill Jockey

From there Eleventh Dream Day’s productivity considerably slowed as Rizzo returned to college and Bean and McCombs focused on Freakwater and Tortoise/Brokeback respectively. Today the group is partially defined as an on-again-off-again affair; Stalled Parade emerged in 2000, Zeroes and Ones in ’06 and Riot Now! in ’11, but as outlined above EDD once dished seven albums in nine years.

One component in their continued success is the lack of any rustiness/dustiness; since Zeroes and Ones the lineup has included ex-Coctail Mark Greenberg on keyboards and now features a second axe courtesy of Zincs-leader Jim Elkington. Also, in earlier days Eleventh Dream Day was accurately assessed as a non-hackneyed roots-rock proposition, and while they haven’t forsaken that direction the post-Atlantic material does offer evidence of increased experimentation.

Works for Tomorrow’s opener “Vanishing Point” strikes a nice balance between the earthy and the edgy; with a touch of warm rasp Bean soulfully belts out a minimal lyric as the guitarists explore tension that brings a decidedly post-Krautrock scenario to the fore. As it unwinds departed acts like Quickspace and Ganger specifically come to mind, though the highpoint of the number is Bean’s reentering after Rizzo’s concise bout of amp racket, her singing even more fervent.

The organ adds color without interfering with EDD’s thrust as a guitar band, Greenberg’s contribution also felt on the resounding title track. Here Rizzo takes the emphatic vocal lead, Bean’s voice matching his as she whacks her kit with precise abandon; “Works for Tomorrow” is riffy but never rudimentary and brandishes art-punk energy suggesting Urinals and Mission of Burma.

It’s in “Cheap Gasoline” that the Paisley Underground influence shines through, and in their hands the connection is still quite fresh. Greenberg’s input lends a garage angle and the atmosphere around Rizzo’s solo blends the heaviness of Neil and the expansiveness of the San Fran ballrooms but with a fruitful tidiness; the way everything briefly drops out except for the voices further enhances the contemporary flavor in the psych-rocking whole.

Next is a swell cover of Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s “Snowblind” from the duo’s ’69 cult doozy Farewell Aldebaran; it possesses enlarged rock stomp as EDD leaves the original’s structure basically undicked with. Given Bean’s suitability for extending the template established by Henske’s hearty pipes this is an astute move.

“Go Tell It” holds a bounty of goodness in its sturdy and stretched-out mid-tempo; there’s potent dual string wrangle, the limber heft of McCombs’ bass, Greenberg’s icy boogie-woogie piano, Bean’s gospel-drenched vocalizing and the fibrous horn tones of guest hometowner Rich Parenti and Calexico’s Martin Wenk. It’s followed by “The People’s History,” which alternates chunky riffing and propulsive sections as it underscores the unit’s undiminished capacity with a song.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Requiem for 4 Chambers.” Its majority is devoted to robust tunefulness (accented by handclaps) leading into a strapping solo, and the icing is a short passage of Rizzo and Bean’s interwoven vocal lines. With “The Unknowing” the pace slows, the singers combining again during a gradual rise in intensity; even after the band kicks into gear the prettiness of their twined voices lingers, the vocals well-shaded by organ as the song is capped by an especially attractive guitar turn from Rizzo.

“Deep Lakes” also sidesteps raucousness, substituting vibrant texture and interactive skill. However, Eleventh Dream Day wisely up the volume for Works for Tomorrow’s finale “End with Me,” Rizzo punctuating his verses with bursts of electric gristle as Bean backs him on the choruses. Naturally vigorous soloing is on hand and just as reliably the rhythm section hits a solid groove; it completes the latest worthwhile showing from these resourceful survivors.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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