When you think about it, the longevity of Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day is staggering. It’s been 23 years since they first formed and 18 years since their first full-length, Prairie School Freakout. Moreover, the band has remained intact even as the members’ energies have been focused into different side projects (most notably Doug McCombs’ work in Tortoise).
Where were many of us at the ages of 23 and 18? I’d wager entertaining pipe dreams of instant fame and attempting to squeeze by with a D in trigonometry. In all but rare cases, we probably weren’t punching out vital music in the mold of Yo La Tengo by way of Husker Du or a Television-tinged Sonic Youth; and we probably weren’t doing stuff like that while missing out on some well-deserved commercial praise. Then again, at those ages we were probably nowhere near as cool as Eleventh Dream Day — piecemeal or as a group — nor did we have their dedication to songcraft.
Six years after their last album, Stalled Parade, the band’s reemerged with Zeroes and Ones, which revisits some of the guitar-blast territory of their earlier releases. Zeroes and Ones is a fitting name for the album since the subjects covered on its dozen tracks are often built on contrasts. In the case of the fuzzy “For Martha,” the song’s narrator blocks out the gravity of reality with a solipsistic repetition of “It’s all in my head.” Treading similar thematic territory, the boogie-bass opener “Dissolution” feature’s the album’s eponymous lyrics, “I’ve come undone between zeroes and ones / The focus has lost its appeal,” which suggests being caught between extremes and drifting towards some uncertain end.
There’s also a contrast of sounds at work on Zeroes and Ones. Take the bitter, full-speed-ahead Pixies-style punch of “Lately I’ve Been Thinking,” a song with enough angst to make that 18-year-old alluded to earlier in the review pucker and pout while nihilistically toe-tapping along. The power-chord and screeching-solo kerfuffle is followed by the melodic, meditative “New Rules.” The dual lullaby vocals — Rizzo’s whispery delivery and Janet Beveridge Bean’s soft reassurance — complement each other well as the almost eight-minute song then segues into an extended solo that would make Richard Lloyd smile.
One of the best pieces of evidence that Zeroes and Ones tackles the unbearable lightness of rock and roll is within “Lost in the City.” From the lone guitar that opens the song to the building rhythm section and the peals of marimba, “Lost in the City” changes from impending to airborne to urgent in the span of a few minutes. Its love-awry lyrics also dwell between extremes, in this case the extremes of freedom and fetters and of flight and falling. Like the opener, there’s a sense of uncertainty about being caught in between two possibilities, an uncertainty that is (yet another contrast) something that’s exciting and frightening.
Both 18 and 23 are great ages to be: The promise of young adulthood in sight just as much as the pratfalls and mistakes that inevitably lie ahead. So really, this album of extremes and uncertainty is fitting for Eleventh Dream Day’s age as a band. It’s a strong showing that pushes, flutters and flies forward with great promise as the group seems to have no intention of stopping any time soon. If they can keep putting out quality releases like this through 2013, Eleventh Dream Day will be cool at 30, which is an accomplishment in more ways than one.
Yo La Tengo – Ride the Tiger
The Clean – Getaway
Dream Syndicate – Days of Wine and Roses