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Back in May, Smashing Pumpkins auteur Billy Corgan announced that he would pull the plug on his group by the end of the year, citing the relative commercial failure of the Pumpkins’ last two albums. “It’s hard to keep trying to fight the good fight against the Britneys,” the formerly mighty rock star said. Surrendering to Britney? What a wimp. That course of action, I’m sure, would never occur to the likes of fellow guitar-rock veterans Eleventh Dream Day and Bettie Serveert. In fact, if their new records are any indication, brainy, adult-strength rock ‘n’ roll is coming back.
Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day released its self-titled debut EP in 1987, a very good year for indie rock. Although luminaries such as Hüsker Dü and the Replacements had long since turned in their best work, they’d also set the stage for the brash, noisy rock ‘n’ roll that would soon dominate college and, somewhat later, mainstream radio. Scene veteran Sonic Youth, which had labored for years in relative obscurity, perfected its signature sound with the Sister LP and began releasing the best records of its career; the Pixies unleashed their hugely influential brand of caustic antipop; and Dinosaur Jr. began cranking out its tough-minded, bittersweet classics for SST. Nirvana, of course, dropped the big one in 1991. At the time, the band’s great success caught nearly everyone by surprise, but hindsight makes it clear that Nevermind’s chart-topping power was actually a culmination of an aesthetic that had been years in the making.
The members of Eleventh Dream Day have known that all along. Inspired at its inception by Neil Young’s frenzied electric outings with Crazy Horse, the group has rarely deviated from its scene-sanctioned ragged guitar sound, choosing instead to channel its creative energy into better and better songwriting. Stalled Paradeits title a short-form assessment of indie rock circa 2000is perhaps the band’s best record yet, showcasing a well-honed melodic skill while almost completely bypassing the group’s earlier forays into dissonant self-indulgence. The band, in fact, has never seemed so casually confident, so, well, adult. It’s especially adult on “Valrico74,” wherein drummer-vocalist (and Freakwater member) Janet Bean channels the subtle power of Emmylou Harris’ Daniel Lanois-produced ambient work. It’s a breathtaking departure for the bandand a completely successful experiment.
But “Interstate,” the disc’s best track, is far more characteristic. As his band lovingly re-creates the somber edge of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, singer-guitarist Rick Rizzo delivers the album’s most eloquently understated line: “I’ve been here before/And I’ll see more and more.” There’s nothing world-weary about the lyric, nothing sarcastic; it’s just a matter-of-fact assessment of the band’s veteran status and its continuing potential for greatness. Later in the song, Rizzo takes a swipe at contemporary radio (“To seek was in vain/Because nothing was playing”), and then he and Bean admonish themselves in two-part harmony: “Where have you gone?/Where have you been?/Get back, get back.” The rest of the subtle, cerebral Stalled ParadeEleventh Dream Day’s first LP since 1997’s Eighthmakes it clear that the band is indeed back.
So, too, are the men and woman of Bettie Serveert. The Dutch group’s classic 1993 debut, Palomine, introduced Bettie Serveert as a band capable of combining earthy sensuality and a jangling edge, with soulful vocalist Carol Van Dyk providing a focal point for the sonic attack. The record received rave reviews, as did the follow-ups Lamprey (1995) and Dust Bunnies (1997), establishing the band members as indie-rock champs. And then, except for a 1998 live disc, they were gone.
Private Suit, the band’s new album, is far more contemplative than Bettie Serveert’s earlier work, but it’s even more engaging. The disc opens with the stately, introspective “Unsound”: “Took a Tylenol and an hour’s drive,” Van Dyk sings, before rounding out the rhyme with “And somehow found a reason why I’m still alive.” Given that the group’s last studio effort was released three years ago, it’s hard not to read a bit of band mythology into the couplet. The languid, bittersweet guitars supply emotional heft, too, providing the perfect foil for Van Dyk’s front-and-center voice. When the track finally comes full circle, with Van Dyk proclaiming that “you’ve got every right to be just like you want,” you’re convinced that she’s earned the right to articulate that hard-won truism.
Throughout the disc, Private Suit producer John Parish lets the band’s crafty musicianship speak for itself. As a result, the album is lush but organic, with strummed acoustic guitars wrapped tightly around noisy, electric ones and warm splashes of organ showing up in all the right places. Parish also guests on the album’s can’t-miss showstopper, “Mariachi Souls,” a countryish suicide ballad with a chorus that recalls the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation” in both its lyrics and its epic chord progression.
Like Stalled Parade, Private Suit resonates mostly for its intelligence and, for lack of a better word, maturity. The descriptor often functions as a euphemism for “They got boring” when used in connection with rock bands, just as “adolescent” typically means “Gee, isn’t it great?” But with the likes of Eleventh Dream Day and Bettie Serveert (not to mention Yo La Tengo) just now making the best music of their careers, it may be time to reconsider that particular bit of rock-crit shorthand. CP