Eleventh Dream Day – Prairie School Freakout

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Eleventh Dream Day is a frustrating band that l suspect might’ve made far less infuriating choices if early on they had found the success their talent merited. I also blame Doug McCombs. The band’s roots are in Louisville, where Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean met. Both guitarists moved to Chicago and joined forces with McCombs (bass) and the incomparably named Baird Figi (guitar), with Beveridge Bean switching to drums. The band steadily released albums from 1988 to 1994 (Figi being replaced in 1992 by Wink O’Bannon), and then collectively put Eleventh Dream Day on the back burner:  Rizzo returned to school; Beveridge Bean focused on her band Freakwater; and McCombs pursued annoying ideas with his band Tortoise. They released albums sporadically after that (minus O’Bannon), none of them with the fire of the early work and many with a strong ambient influence.

What I Think of This Album

I own a “deluxe” reissue of Prairie School Freakout which prints the four band members’ reminisces of the recording of the album. Almost all of them reference the extreme heat, the late night start, the compressed recording time, the small footprint of the studio, and the noise coming from Rick Rizzo’s amp. All of that comes through on the recording, which captures Eleventh Dream Day giving an inspired performance, born of sweat and desperation.

Rizzo and Figi Baird dominate the album with their Neil Young homage. Apart from the shouted vocals – rooted instead in punk – opener “Watching the Candles Burn” could’ve easily been a Crazy Horse track, with Janet Beveridge Bean’s tom rolls adding to the momentum. The same is true of “Beach Miner” (though I think the opening guitar figure is downright Beatles-esque). Final song “Life On a String” similarly brings to mind Young.

What the band also does, critically, is to subvert and twist the Americana that Young (a Canadian) appropriated, delivering a modern, burned-out, ominous landscape drowning in violence and sadness, unmoored by an utter lack of meaning. This is thanks to the stunning work of songwriters Beveridge Bean and Rizzo; Bean provides three tracks, Rizzo another three, and they share credit on one more (Figi wrote two and McCombs one). The album would work well as the soundtrack to an updated movie version of In Cold Blood

Beveridge Bean’s harmony vocals do nothing to ease the unsettling atmosphere; if anything, her singing on “Sweet Smell” (her own song) only contributes to the claustrophobic feel. Rizzo deconstructs a couple’s failure to communicate and connect on “Coercion” (again, a Bean number) and it comes out sounding like an (American) gothic nightmare. His singing of the closing line “She became the night” evokes dread and exhaustion. McCombs provides the anomalous “Through My Mouth,” which is all hardcore rhythm – appropriate for Rizzo’s shouting about dying – and then turns into an atonal squallfest.

Relatedly, Bean’s “Death of Albert C. Sampson” is tale about a suicidal killer of a grocery store clerk; this is basically a Rust Belt version of Camus’s The Stranger accompanied by a blistering guitar lead. “Among the Pines” is equally existential and similarly death-obsessed, building from a tapestry of instruments to a sunny, jangly chord progression that would fit in perfectly on a classic era Lemonheads album while Rizzo sing-speaks like Lou Reed after overdosing on Emily Dickinson. The two solos here are wonderfully lyrical and melodic – arguably the highlight of the album.

“Driving Song” is exactly that, though it does not traffic in liberation and fun. Rather, it speaks to resignation and pointless repetition – the acknowledgement of being trapped. Written by Baird, he proves that he can nail the anomie that his bandmates have been doling out. This song is mostly an excuse for the lead guitar part, which is admittedly fucking awesome. The band gets atmospheric on “Tarantula,” which invokes a charred cathedral, the orbit of heavenly bodies, and, of course, death. Beveridge Bean provides spooky harmonies, Rizzo delivers his lyrics with punk aggression, Baird plays some cool slide guitar, and the other guitars carve like glaciers across the plains.

I am shocked that this album did not catapult Eleventh Dream Day to fame. This thing fucking rocks, and does so intelligently. Future band member Wink O’Bannon co-engineered the recording.

My reissue tacks on the three tracks that comprise the Wayne EP, from a year later:  “Tenth Leaving Train,” “ Southern Pacific,” and “Go.” The first is a marathon number (over 11 minutes long) that allows Baird and Rizzo plenty of room to stretch out, which they do not fail to take advantage of. Making things explicit is the Young cover “Southern Pacific”; Bean’s distant harmonies are great, the guitar figures in the background are awesome, and Rizzo sounds half-demented. “Go” is a fun, noisy romp, a bit like X if they had come out of Kansas instead of L.A.

The Best Thing About This Album

I would say the guitars but the songs wouldn’t be the same without Rizzo and Bean’s harrowing lyrics. I will therefore punt to a certain degree and praise the band’s energy, which should cover both the sound and the fury.

Release Date

1988

The Cover Art

It’s okay. It bears no relation to the amazing sounds on the record. The title is fantastic, of course.

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