It wouldn’t be accurate to call Eleventh Dream Day also-rans, mainly because for nearly 25 years they’ve managed to release an album every five or six. Still, they’ve never received the attention and accolades many of their Chicago peers have, and the words “overlooked” and “underappreciated” pop up frequently in reviews and press bios. EDD is probably known to some people as the ‘other’ band of drummer Janet Bean, who showcases her voice and songwriting more prominently in country-folk group Freakwater, and bassist Doug McCombs, who helped define what we call post-rock in the not-exactly-starved-for-attention band Tortoise. This reputation works for and against EDD. Sure, they’re a sort of cult band that doesn’t really have to prove itself anymore, but who wants to be in a band that gets called underrated every time it releases a record?
Their debut, 1988’s Prairie School Freakout, was a fiery, classic rock-leaning take on Midwestern hardcore/indie of the day, and the fact that it was recorded live helps explain why it’s the noisiest, most raucous thing they have and probably will ever release. A stint on Atlantic Records resulted in a trio of good to great records, but apparently they weren’t altogether happy with their major label experience, a too-familiar tale for ‘alternative’ bands of the 1990s. Atavistic released Ursa Major in 1994, the band’s most atypical and in many ways most interesting album. Forging a still active relationship with Thrill Jockey soon afterward, EDD began exploring a more subdued direction, similar to the post-rock music of some of their labelmates and peers. It’s been half a decade since their last album, which bore the very un-rock title Zeroes and Ones, even if the music it contained moved away a bit for the textural explorations of their previous two albums. But with the more rockist-titled Riot Now!, it seems the band is attempting to clear the decks and crank out a raw, muscular album hearkening back to its early days.
Recorded in a one-day session with minimal overdubs, the album consist of mostly first takes, and it shows, especially in the opening one-two punch of “Damned Tree” and “Cold Steel Grey.” The former is a mid-tempo dirge that careens wildly through its second half at breakneck speed, the latter a Ramones-tempo’d sing-along that begins with a mess of unwieldy feedback. “Satellite” continues the trend, some Sonic Youth-style guitar washes pasted over a country-rock stomper, a style the band has always excelled at without stooping to alt-country hokeyness. The album then takes a breather with the slowed-down “That’s What’s Coming,” which sounds more like the EDD of the past few years. It would be naïve to expect Riot Now! to feature nine cuts of full-throttle speed and action, but with this track, the wind gets sucked out of the album, taking a turn it doesn’t fully recover from. Yeah, there are more rockers down the line, but there are just as many tasteful moments that remind you the band always had a few too many of these bordering-on-ballad songs per album.
One thing that is consistent throughout the record, and really all of the band’s albums, is singer/guitarist Rick Rizzo’s guitar playing. He’s always had a distinct, Neil Young/J Mascis kind of idiosyncratic unpredictability, and his solos somehow never get old, even though they often sound like variations on the same pattern. If anything, you wish they’d go on longer. He lets loose with an extended solo during “Sonic Reducer” that’s as amazing as anything he’s recorded, then livens up the plodding next track with one just as great.
EDD are probably too traditional a band to ever record a straight-up punk record. But it would have been nice to hear an entire album powering through with the intensity of the more rocking half of Riot Now!. It might be a mistake to fault a band for not delivering what you want to hear, but so much of this album sounds like something EDD needed to get out of their system, a reboot after two and a half decades of on-again/off-again activity, a rush of volume and attitude in uncertain times that keeps getting more uncertain. But they’re too mature, too tasteful. Or maybe they’re just doing what they want to do without regard for what their fans might think. Good for them. Besides, nowadays Prairie School Freakout does start to sound a little samey about halfway in.