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Eleventh Dream Day - Prairie School Freakout

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Artist: Eleventh Dream Day

Album: Prairie School Freakout

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Oct. 21, 2003

For lovers of guitar-heavy indie rock, listening to Prairie School Freakout for the first time is somewhat akin to discovering some vintage porn in your dad’s closet. A treasure trove of heretofore unknown pleasures, which only take on an added quality of exoticism due to their dated quality and cultural remove. Eleventh Dream Day are one of the classic “underrated” bands in indie history, victim to an uncaring major label and unlucky circumstance. But this is not what makes Dream Day, or this album so exciting, and frankly, it’s often better to be underrated. People still champion the Velvet Underground, even though they’ve probably gone platinum at this point, and this underdog quality gives the music an added pull, like cheering the Red Sox on a playoff run.

Hearing Freakout, Dream Day’s second album, first released in 1988, doesn’t give the impression of a band that would ever be considered also-rans. Reportedly unhappy with the overly-polished sound of their debut, EDD decamped to Louisville from Chicago and recorded the whole album in one non-stop twelve-hour session, fueled by beer and humidity. Even a persistent amp buzz from guitarist Rick Rizzo’s amp failed to slow things down. The various members of the band would eventually work on other projects, Janet Bean in Freakwater and Doug McCombs in Brokeback and Tortoise, among others. But on Freakout, this was everyone’s main gig, and it sounds like it. Coming at the dawn of guitar revivalism spawned by bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, 1988 was a good time to be playing solos again. Indeed, if this record is about anything, it’s about guitars, noisy, dextrous, and free, blasting huge arcs of sound all over the place. This is the album’s chief pleasure, and the vitality of the performance hasn’t aged a bit.

The album’s opening track, “Watching Candles Burn”, sums up the band’s approach: dueling guitars that wildly alternate between a countryish strum and noisy, half-improvised solos; Rick Rizzo’s amelodic, almost aggressive singing; a general sense of freewheeling, youthful energy. Much has been made of the album’s spontaneous creation and its more rough-edged qualities, and it’s true that in years to come, both the band and the individual members would become much more nuanced in their playing. But this record is clearly the work of a tight, disciplined unit with sufficient skill to bring off the looser aspects of the record. Many of the songs push past the five minute mark, referencing Neil Young’s “Down By The River” more for song structure than its sound. This pattern of verse/chorus/solo…chorus/long solo is repeated frequently, but never threatens to become stale.

Rizzo’s vocal style eschews melody for the most part, leaving room for tales of American lowlifes and loners, drunks and beach combers, a peculiar cross-section of the marginalized. Rizzo and second guitarist Baird Figi, who also contributes songs, are both adept at creating a solid narrative atmosphere within a song, which gives the lengthy solos a greater weight, as if the guitars are more appropriate for telling tales. And for the most part, they are, carrying the emotional weight of the songs that Rizzo refuses to betray in his singing. It’s strange and somewhat unfortunate that Eleventh Dream Day get pegged as “the band who didn’t make it”, since they’ve produced a string of great albums, both on Atlantic and their more friendly home, Thrill Jockey. The “alternative rock” era that the band helped to set in motion was a fickle, unpredictable beast, one that spit out many more bands than it took in. The era’s successes were, in hindsight, somewhat predictable: Soundgarden possessed a lanky, shirtless lead singer; Dinosaur Jr. had a mad-genius guitar god for a frontman; Pearl Jam had a bass player who wore funny hats. At least Dream Day never even tried to embarrass themselves by playing down to radio or making an expensive, “Jeremy”-style video. And if we’re going to start pointing fingers, the Replacements are surely the era’s biggest fuckups.

Eleventh Dream Day were actually instrumental in laying the groundwork for our present-day indie rock world, where bands like Yo la Tengo can tour the world and release records reliably. It’s a small, unsexy victory, but surely we should be excited that bands can actually make a good living these days, or at least have a chance at it. It may be romantic to search the bins for “lost” bands that were screwed by their record companies, but it’s more exciting in the end for that band to make a second album. Eleventh Dream Day may have had some of their fortune squandered by an uncaring major (Modest Mouse’s current difficulties with Sony suggest that some things never change), but this release is a testament to the band’s initial promise.

It also functions as an excellent introduction to a solid and varied catalog, hinted at by the album’s closer, “Go.” A tumultuous, far-ranging guitar workout, the song handles dense nests of sound delicately and subtly, hinting at the gracefully complex playing that would characterize their later work. Powerful as many of the songs are on Prairie School Freakout are, there is a mastery of dynamics and tone on this song that goes far beyond the rest of the album. The vocals, traded urgently between Bean and Rizzo, reach a frenetic, unsteady wail above warbling feedback and stabbing guitar riffs. At times quiet and retreating, at others aggressive and chaotic, the song never loses its focus or its sense of immediacy, managing to sound beautiful and slightly scary at the same time. It’s a great track, a perfect encapsulation of what was happening at the time and a powerful suggestion of where things might go.

By Jason Dungan

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