Eleventh Dream Day – Zeroes and Ones

Eleventh Dream Day
Zeroes and Ones

Over an illustrious 20-plus year career, Eleventh Dream Day’s pioneering and innovative indie-rock enterprise has barely put an artistic foot wrong. Even a relatively below-par EDD album – say 1993’s El Moodio or 1997’s Eighth – is still known to be littered with memorably great moments. It seems that Rick Rizzo (guitar/vocals), Janet Beveridge Bean (drums/vocals), and Doug McCombs (bass) are incapable of making a genuinely duff record together. That said, after a six-year wait for a follow-up to 2000’s superbly eclectic Stalled Parade – a gap only punctuated by sporadic live shows and a deluxe reissue of 1988’s Prairie School Freakout – EDD fans do deserve a redemptive – rather than run-of-the-mill – reunion record. Frustrating it is, then, to find that Zeroes and Ones falls between those two scenarios, marking itself as a solid yet underachieving return to the fray.

The buoyant opening of “Dissolution” paves the way to a feeling that the album’s 12-track sequence is rather top-heavy in terms of quality, with the first six strong songs bleeding into five weaker ones, before a more-finessed finale. “Dissolution” is as infectious and melodic as EDD get: soaring Rizzo/Bean vocal-twining, freewheeling Velvets-meets-Sonic Youth guitar chug, throbbing bass, driving drums, and a dreamy keyboard undertow. The ensuing trio of “Insincere Inspiration,” “For Martha,” and “Lately I’ve Thinking” pull similar punches, albeit with the string-bending and singing becoming looser and more raucous. “New Rules” slides into a more downcast mood, with Rizzo and Bean lamenting liltingly together before a gnarling guitar outro churns with relentless passion. “Lost in the City” has a more engaging experimentalist groove – echoing one of the post-rock flavoured cuts from Eighth – with its intricate percussive framing and electro-acoustic layering.

Halfway in, however, Zeroes and Ones loses some direction, largely through an apparent dilution of the dynamic democracy that has always fuelled EDD’s fierce creativity. For starters, Janet Bean doesn’t seem as interested in contributing with as much gumption as before. When given lead vocal and/or lyric-writing duties on previous releases, her gutsy twang and robust compositional skills have always provided delights, but here on “The Lure” – her only ‘solo’ spot in the vocal booth – she sells herself short with a lazy dollop of soft-core indie-pop. McCombs, too, absolves himself from taking a more leading role, bringing in none of the barbed-wire post-punk or bass-led instrumental interludes that have historically shaped the more esoteric edge of the EDD repertoire. Whilst new ‘unofficial fourth member’ Mark Greenberg (‘on loan’ from labelmate Archer Prewitt) does provide some interesting enough keyboard and percussion embellishments, his input is no way as catalytic as Tortoise’s John McEntire, who previously held the baton.

These subtle rejections of devolved power-sharing put a strain on de facto band leader Rizzo in the latter portion of the album, prompting some listless noodling (“Return of Long Shadow”), some weak wordplay (“From K To Z” and “For Everything”), and a plodding retread of former glories (“Pinwheels” sounds like an attempt to recreate the buzzing atmosphere of Prairie School Freakout). It’s understandable why such disunity has transpired, with EDD no longer a full-term operation (Rizzo has a teaching day-job, Bean has been busy with solo as well as Freakwater recording/touring, and McCombs has Brokeback and Tortoise obligations), but it’s a shame that the group didn’t opt to chip away more piecemeal at 10 great songs over six years, instead of rushing to nail 12 in a compressed last-minute rush. However, the band has rarely ended an album on a bum note, so thankfully “Journey With No Maps” concludes this collection with some Buffalo Tom-meets-Neil Young-pathos powering a yearning country-rock coda to the whole lopsided affair.

Whilst Zeroes and Ones isn’t the rejoicing return we could have hoped for, it’s ultimately no disgrace. Its flaws are largely derived from ducking the band’s own past high standards, whilst its best bits merely reconfirm the group’s Midas touch. Let’s just hope that another half-decade doesn’t elapse before EDD realises the need to compensate for this album’s (largely forgivable) mistakes. In short, only long-time EDD fans need apply automatically.