Discover more from Greil Marcus / Letter in the Ether
The 'Days Between Stations' columns, Interview magazine 1992-2008: The Curious Case of Eleventh Dream Day
Listening to Eleventh Dream Day’s seventh album, Ursa Major (Atavistic/City Slang), left me wondering, where’s this band gone? Across their plainspoken, dramatic fifth and sixth albums, Lived to Tell and El Moodio—both on Atlantic, both out of print—a sense of place seemed primary. I don’t mean Chicago, where the band lives, or Kentucky, which shapes the singing of drummer Janet Bean. I mean a particular bar—a place that, after a verse of a song, you feel you know better than you want to. Or an almost unfurnished apartment where people have been living for six months. Or even the dim stairway you have to take to get there. The sense of place in “It’s Not My World” (Lived to Tell) or “Makin’ Like a Rug” (El Moodio) is so specific, and so harsh, that when a song takes you out of that bar, out of that apartment building, you can almost feel your eyes recoiling from the brightness of the day. By then you’ve grown so accustomed to the tunes that you’re at home in them; you want to turn around and go right back inside.
Letter in the Ether is a reader-supported guide to everyday culture and found objects. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
“Flutter,” the second single from Ursa Major, is the sort of heartfelt ballad that usually makes me turn and run, period. “You are/The most beautiful angel/I have ever/seen,” Bean sings, slowly, almost chanting, as if the words were a prayer. Such songs are usually written to mark the birth of a baby, and birth announcements don’t work on albums. But that isn’t what this song stems from, as it happens. That may be why—as I played Ursa Major over and over, always subconsciously pointing toward “Bearish on High” for its weird, thrilling cry from guitarist Rick Rizzo (“Irony means a lot to me… it gives me FAITH!”)—after a bit I found I couldn’t get “Flutter” out of my mind.
Its sentimental premise established, the song begins to move, to swirl. An odd, circular rhythm—so precise you can picture hand-holding folk dancers in a reel—takes over. Then the music tilts upward; as a listener, you climb its steps. As the music expands, room opens up for the listener; Rizzo’s reverberating guitar shakes the sound, making it shudder, flutter. When the song quiets, with Bean humming to herself as a single tone rises in the background, a certain suspense rises along with it. You want her to get back to the song before something terrible happens, to make sure there’s no disaster waiting in the next verse.
Eleventh Dream Day, active since 1983, usually a two-guitar four-piece, currently a three-piece—Bean, Rizzo, bassist Douglas McCombs—could be described as a combo that seeks out the turning points in everyday life, partly through the pursuit of rhythms and guitar lines that inevitably pull back against themselves. As an aural metaphor for a body of songs that are about exile, separation, and the absence of community that is felt, in the social body we all partly make up, like the ghost presence of an amputated limb, the music as a concept is extraordinarily powerful, but the concept is not particularly salable. It doesn’t exactly translate to video, or even into hot song titles.
The group made its first three albums for the indie Amoeba, and then did truly great work, so far their best work, for Atlantic—at a time when Atlantic was set up to handle anything but great work. Over the past ten or fifteen years, the label has doggedly chased low-concept, niche-marketed, generic mediocrity, and so effectively that the shameless posturing of Stone Temple Pilots now more fully represents the label than Aretha Franklin did in 1967. Brought in by Atlantic’s broom-closet indie division, Eleventh Dream Day had nowhere to go in the building, no matter how good or bad their music; former label president Danny Goldberg was briefly a champion, but wasn’t around long enough to make a difference. “Going to the dinners with those people was pretty agonizing,” Bean says, with a get-it-over-with, get-on-with-it tone you can hear in her most distinctive singing. Since in her singing you can also hear the will—sometimes the desperate, tired will—to live a decent life, to not embarrass yourself in the course of its pursuit, taking up with a local label piggybacked onto a small film and video company makes sense.
So, maybe, does the vagueness of place in the songs on Ursa Major. When, to kick off “It’s Not My World,” Rick Rizzo tells you about his day—“Paul played a song on the jukebox/’When I Look in Your Eyes’/He played it every time he came in/Which was hundreds of times”—you almost don’t need him to tell you anything else, the setting is so complete. There’s a thud in the way he sings the second line, which breaks up into the dread in the third, a dread so present, you’re afraid the band is now going to launch into “When I Look in Your Eyes” to make sure you don’t miss the point. But they don’t, because there’s no chance you’ll miss the point. By now, Rizzo is into his fifth beer and so are you; you’ve been in this bar as many times as he has; you’ve heard the fucking song as many times as he has; one more time isn’t going to make any difference. When it plays, you’re barely going to notice; the dread is all in the anticipation.
The slower, more contemplative, more distant music on Ursa Major sounds like a kind of retreat—a shrinking of, or from, the social body so palpable, so inescapable in earlier times, on earlier albums. Is that what it means to carry on an unfeasible, unfashionable artistic project for twelve years, for as long as you can? Is that what it means to do your work—work you care about, work there’s no guarantee, or even much promise, anyone else will care about, in an economy that is growing on paper and contracting where most people actually live? The last number on Ursa Major, “Exit Right,” really has no exit; it climbs a wall and stays on the wall, neither reaching the top nor climbing down. As a guitarist, Rick Rizzo loves his instrument for its own sake, for the themes it can find in tunes that were written about something else altogether. That kind of freedom is in his playing here, a freedom that plays off the muted, careful warnings in Janet Bean’s singing. So the band perhaps pulls back, at least in this moment—waiting, along with a lot of other people, to see if the future will have room for them.
Originally published in Interview Magazine, April 1995