Looking over Dunn’s rather expansive collection of effects pedals—I count six, plus an all-important looper and at least three other extraneous gadgets with which I am woefully unfamiliar—it becomes a little easier to understand why the liner notes to El Ten Eleven’s debut self-titled album calmly declare that “there are no keyboards on this recording.”
No keyboards and no overdubs, at least not in the traditional sense of a bass line or melody being pre-recorded and then piped into a private soundbooth while a musician plays along. Yup, with the help of a handy-dandy looper (a DigiTech JamMan, lest my eyes doth deceive me) and a drop-dead gorgeous 1977 Carvin doubleneck bass/guitar, Dunn is able to layer his riffs, lines, and chords on the spot, effectively generating a full band sound from one instrument. Dunn’s sense of timing is impressive, and his feet tend to be as active as his hands, what with all the looping, delaying, shifting, and compressing.
Keeping time with no small amount of flourishes and rolls, Fogarty’s toe-tapping percussion tends to stick with the toms, bass, and ride, though it does branch out into snare and crash for the heavy crescendo in “Lorge” and the driving beat of “Thinking Loudly.” Not to mention Fogarty’s electric side-kit, which contributes some of the odder, digitized-sounding effects like the faux-handclaps of “My Only Swerving” and the tic-tic-tic of “Connie.”
But for all of their technical ingenuity and instrumental prowess, El Ten Eleven’s initial offering feels a little shallow. Yeah, it’s fascinating to watch Dunn finger-tap on both bass and guitar necks while micromanaging his various effects pedals, and Fogarty’s percussion is so effortlessly precise that it almost seems robotic. But you can’t see that while listening to the album; thankfully, their website provides live video-recordings for the benefit of us East Coasters (albeit they did perform at the Ottobar in early May 2006).
Individually, songs like “Central Nervous Piston” and “Sorry About Your Irony,” provide some intriguing chord progressions and rhythmic shifts with the occasional inter-track bleed, but the album generally does not cohere as a solid entity. With an average length of about three and a half minutes each, most tracks fail to develop their themes in the same way as, say, the extended instrumental musings of Explosions in the Sky. El Ten Eleven have crescendos and dénouements a-plenty, but they tend to be quick and relatively painless—good in their own right, but not exactly shiver-worthy.
Nevertheless, it’s important to note that there are only two performers, yet El Ten Eleven sounds like a three- or four-piece band, both in-studio and out. For that alone, Dunn and Fogarty deserve a round of applause.