Tell Me When It’s Over / Definitely Clean / That’s What You Always Say / Then She Remembers / Halloween / When You Smile / Until Lately / Too Little, Too Late / The Days of Wine and Roses
Often regarded as the quintessential group of the Paisley Underground-movement, The Dream Syndicate might have been the band that had the least in common with the other units. Most of those bands were based in Los Angeles (or relocated there) and shared a love for late ‘60’s rock, preferably of the psychedelic kind (The Byrds, The Doors, The Beatles, etc.). However, only a few bands (the Rain Parade, The Three O’Clock) never got rid of that tag, as Green on Red quickly moved into rootsier territory, The Bangles actually sounded as if they should’ve called themselves The Jangles, while The Dream Syndicate combined the sonic experimentation of the Velvet Underground (White Light/White Heat-period) and the adventurous rock of mid-‘60’s Dylan with the urgency and rawness of punk rock, while defying that genre’s stylistic essence with groove-based songs, strangled guitar solos and a proneness to extended noisy jams (especially on stage). While the VU-comparison has become an annoying truism in the meantime, front man Steve Wynn’s nasal vocals, limited range and slightly macabre lyrics did warrant the Lou Reed-similarity for lack of a better point of reference. Whatever their intentions were, it’s hard to deny that this quartet delivered the songs to back up the statement they were a band with more than enough personality of their own.
At the time when this album was released (late ’82), the punk explosion of the previous years had spawned scenes dominated by legions of post-punk bands starting to explore less guitar-dominated territory on the one hand, and even more others who took punk to its hardcore extremes with velocity and aggression on the other hand (unlike the bands who laid the genre’s foundations). It’s no surprise then, that The Dream Syndicate found a home at Slash Records (X, The Blasters, etc). Lead guitarist Karl Precoda, Wynn (no slouch on guitar either), and the rhythm section of Kendra Smith (bass) and Dennis Duck (drums) were one of the few units (along with R.E.M., The Wipers, Mission of Burma, etc.) who brought the guitar back to rock ‘n’ roll well before seminal bands like Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. made their mark. Wynn and Smith had been in a short-lived band called The Suspects (who released only one single) for less than a year, but The Days of Wine and Roses hardly sounds like the firstborn of a beginning band. Granted, they seem to rely more on instinct and texture than on technique at this point, but at the same time, Precoda’s feedback-drenched guitar chops are simply amazing, much in the way Neil Young, Sterling Morrison or Greg Sage - all guitarists that disband flashiness in favor of emotional density and/or angular and ragged freak-outs – constantly hovered on the verge of chaos. Even the more conventional-sounding songs, like the early anthem “Tell Me When It’s Over,” and “That’s What You Always Say” would horrify fans of, say, Steve Howe. While Wynn’s trademark Telecaster just jangles ahead, Precoda makes his cheap guitars (allegedly he never bought “expensive” ones since he simply ruined ‘em all on stage) walk the thin line between jagged riffing, piercing squeals and all-out distortion. During “Definitely Clean,” one of several early Wynn-songs that are bare-boned explorations of communication breakdowns and break-ups, the band sounds like a crossover between Dylan in his garage-rock period (it’s no wonder that “Outlaw Blues” was a recurring concert favorite) and The Gun Club’s spirited cow-punk. Primal and nasty, but effective as hell, it’s probably one of the earlier examples of a genre that thrived a few years later (Giant Sand or Thin White Rope, anyone?) and – perhaps – inspired several musicians that later would be tagged as – also with a fairly silly invention – alt country. With an eye for minimal description and attention for necessary detail, the band subsequently comes up with the barbed wire-rock of ‘Then She Remembers,” a track that matches the tension and violence of Wynn’s lyrics (“She shows a scar where a face met his ring, she remembers the pain but she forgot his name”) and Precoda’s relentless string torture.
The lead guitarist himself wrote only one of the songs, but his lengthy “Halloween” is among the best things the band ever recorded. With vague suggestions hinting at danger hiding around every corner, it’s once again entirely dominated by the guitar antics: quite melodic during quieter sections and nearly exploding with fury during a climax. Wynn also gets the opportunity to freak out during “Until Lately” (“HE WAS AN ORDINARY GUY, LIKE YOU AND ME … UNTIL LATELY!!”), while the plodding “When You Smile” offers itself as a warped, threatening love song. During the slow and moody “Too Little Too Little,” Kendra Smith gets the role of neo-Moe Tucker (or proto-Georgia Hubley) and does so with a delicate balance of sensuality and coolness to fit the restrained song. However, the one song that turned this album from an excellent one into a TERRIFIC one is the title song, the appropriate album closer. Often regarded as the band’s statement of purpose, it’s a culmination of all that made this band great: a classic intro that sets the tone, a fairly thin but intense sound (courtesy of producer Chris D.), lots of tension, a guitar player that makes his weapon scream with fury and howl with outrageous amounts of feedback and distortion, a nearly hypnotic groove laid down by Smith and Duck, a gallery of characters that offer their perspective on a relationship gone bad, and finally the protagonist who, in the guise of Wynn, tries to grasp what went wrong. It’s not only the album’s undeniable highlight (although it’s crammed with excellent stuff), but a landmark track in ‘80’s rock and, in my book, one of the great guitar songs of all time. To this very day, it’s often the frenzied last chapter of Wynn’s gigs and a track that is worth the price of the album by itself. The Days of Wine and Roses never got the credit Murmur, Zen Arcade or Daydream Nation got, but that doesn’t really matter anymore. The what if?- and why not?-questions are superfluous. It’s simply a benchmark recording, one that seemed nearly impossible to measure up to, even for an excellent songwriter like Wynn, and one that still deserves to be heard by any fan of inspired guitar-based rock.
Note: In 2001, The Days of Wine and Roses was re-released in an expanded version that also included the band’s four-song debut EP, a few alternate versions and rehearsal takes of “Too Little Too Late” and “Definitely Clean.” Recommended without any reservations.
When I first heard it, though, I hadn't really listened to much Velvet Underground.
I don't really agree with the notion that the Dream Syndicate was just a Velvet Underground tribute band that happened to write originals. Of course, the influence is pretty obvious. Steve Wynn is obviously a disciple of Lou Reed in both his vocals and his sorta clunky rhythm guitar playing. The name of the band came from the avant-garde outfit that John Cale played in before he was in The Velvet Underground and Wynn even takes a line from a Velvet Underground song at one point. It's pretty obvious that he really likes The Velvet Underground a lot and that he's very influenced by him, but I'm still convinced that the Syndicate had their own thing going. They weren't heroin addicts like the Velvets were. They were simply college kids (I assume??) existing in the post-punk/pre-alternative/all-new wave 80s environment who liked guitar oriented music better than synths and they never lose sight of that. There's no posing or pretending to be New York hipsters from the 60s here as you'd expect a tribute band to do. Wynn was a pretty good songwriter (at least for this album...I've never heard any of his other stuff, including the later Dream Syndicate albums). He wrote lyrics that were vague, but specific. The singer/songwriter sort of quality he brought to the band was one of the things that made it so good.
The other was Karl Precoda. It's good to see that you appreciate what he did here as well cause he was wicked good. His leads were often the most memorable part of the songs and he apparently was a pretty good songwriter himself. He also brought to the band something that separated them from the Velvets muchly: the almighty speedy guitar crunch. These guys were a rock band who clearly came after The Ramones era. The Velvet Underground...uh...try to find something to shake your fist to there. They made some great music, but it was usually in the form of pop, ballads, or straight noise rock. The Dream Syndicate never really indulged in straight noise-rock, at least not on this record. There was jamming and distortion, but always in the context of the songs. For the Velvets, the jamming and distortion often were the songs. Couple that with some other influences here...namely The Stooges, that other great 60s underground band composed of heavy drugs addicts...and it seems the Dream Syndicate really did carve out their own niche in the music world.
Then we have the issue of the songs. Incredibly consistent. "Tell Me When It's Over" is a great mid-tempo rock song with guitar rock by Precoda that makes you think that this song belongs on some classic rock station somewhere and Wynn's vocal performance and lyricism, which are simply great. I like his sly mocking tone here, speaking to a friend who is constantly whining about his problems. "The scars that you show/may as well be for show"...an anthem for those who are bothered by the touchy-feely and neurotic. "Definitely Clean" changes it up a bit with Wynn fastly strumming an acoustic guitar for rhythm this time, but offers another searing Precoda lead. I definitely agree about the alt.country comparisons. Change the song up a bit and you can probably get a full-fledged country number (then again The Replacements would often play their balls-to-walls punk rock song "Goddamn Job" as a country number so maybe the fact that it can be converted to a country song doesn't mean much). "That's What You Always Say" is another great rock anthem that features a notable bassline and some great guitar interplay between Wynn and Precoda. There's several versions of it on the CD I have and it's interesting to hear how the song evolved. This one is definitely the best recorded version though. "Then She Remembers" kicks up the speed to punkish levels and Wynn puts in a great harsh vocal performance, telling of a badly mistreated daughter. Bands would start scoring hits with such dark subject matter and similar song-writing just ten years later (Pearl Jam's "Daughter" being the most obvious example). These guys weren't just retro 60s. They were also quite a bit ahead of their time. Precoda's "Halloween" has quiet little guitar intro before the band breaks into a heavier, mid-tempo garage band rock out. Precoda's lyrics (which remind me of Husker Du's "Diane" in tone, though nowhere near as harsh) and Wynn's spooky vocal performance lend this song a creepy feel that perfectly suits the holiday of the title.
"When You Smile" is perhaps where Wynn sounds his most Reedish as he opens with a line that's actually taken from a Velvet Underground song ("I dreamed last night I was born a thousand years ago") while playing a slow, possibly heroin-idled (but not really) melody and surrounded by a noticeable amount of feedback. Then it picks up into a bluesy sorta rock out hereby ending comparisons to The Banana Album. "Until Lately" is a definite highlight. It starts off with just the bass and drums and has sort of a nightclub-esque, jazzy, bluesy kind of beat (hard to pin down with my uneducated ears) and then it escalates into a hard rocking freakout that's intense enough musically, but put greatly over the mark with Wynn's crazy screaming and shouting AND the inclusion of a wacked out harmonica. Nothing contributes to freak outs quite like a harmonica does. Unsurprisingly, they follow this up with the most sedate number of the album, "Too Little Too Late", sung by bassist Kendra Smith. She was the first (??) in a soon to be long line of great alt.rock female bassists and she has a pretty good voice. The song is definitely the most blatant Velvet homage (maybe a blatant imitation? your call on that one), as this sounds very much in line with Nico's songs on the Banana album. (Haven't heard Georgia Hubley yet.) "Too Little Too Late" sounds good while it's playing, but it's probably the weakest song on the record. The title track just might be the best. It's definitely their epic and the song they should be most known for. It goes from fast and punkish and slows down to a noise-rock jam in the midst before going back to the faster tempo. It lasts seven minutes, but the song feels worth it's length. One of the better epic tracks to be written in the 80s (even as good as Sonic Youth, if not better).
I like The Days of Wine and Roses because it's a great guitar rock record with a good songwriter, supported by a good band, all with influences in the best of 60s rock (Stooges, Dylan, and, yes, that band with Moe Tucker in it). It's good to see that someone else likes it as much as I do and doesn't slag the band off as just being rip-offs or a rethread. I think it's best explained that, yes, the Dream Syndicate did sound a bit like the Velvet Underground, but the Velvet Underground never sounded a bit like them. Well, maybe a bit, but if so, only that. I don't know if I would put this down on my top ten of the 80s list, but that's mostly due to the high level of the output then. However, I wouldn't hesitate to call this one of the essentials. This one gets either a really high 9 or a 9.5
Tell Me When It’s Over / Some Kinda Itch / Mr. Soul / Sure Thing
There’s not really a convincing argument why I should include a review of this (UK-only) EP, of which I found a vinyl copy a while ago. Released a year after the band’s marvellous debut album, it comprises that album’s lead-off track as well as three other ones that were recorded a mere week before the album was actually taped and a month before its release (yeah children, once upon a time they sold albums right after they were recorded). If it weren’t for The Day Before Wine and Roses – Live at KPFK, September 5, 1982 (look further down the page for more comments), an album released in 1995 that contains these three live tracks plus six other songs, this EP would be the only Dream Syndicate-release offering pre-debut material. What’s the point of buying it then (when you get the chance)? Well, 1) it’s excellent and pleasingly loose stuff to start with, 2) the album sleeve’s stylish minimalism is even nicer than the debut’s and 3) the back cover boasts a few ecstatic paragraphs written by some guy called Byron Coley, who gets to dissect the EP’s content in the way Verve’s Norman Granz praised performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz and other jazz greats, with even the lay-out of the back-sleeve looking similar. They should restore this method (and what’s more fun than reading extensive sleeve notes?), as the prose this Coley guy comes up with isn’t just your average toss-off lingo: “Very neat formalist fisticuffs from a band with limitless destructive potential; and an excellent example of their protrusive mailed fist/kid glove dynamism. Never relax fully when you listen to this band. If they catch you napping they will crush your head like a vinegar-sotted egg.” Damn, why can’t I come up with lines like that? Formalist fisticuffs? Protrusive dynamism? Right on! So, like I said, since the material gathered here is much easier available on CD, you don’t need this release, but if you’re (becoming) a fan (and believe me, Wynn’s fans are one dedicated bunch – I’m just an ignorant rookie compared to them) you might want to get your hands on a good-smelling vinyl copy of Tell Me When It’s Over, but I sure as hell ain’t selling mine!
Still Holding on to You / Daddy’s Girl / Burn / Armed with an Empty Gun / Bullet with My Name on It / The Medicine Show / John Coltrane Stereo Blues / Merrittville
After The Days of Wine and Roses, a few things important events took place: Kendra Smith left the band to form Opal (which would later evolve into Mazzy Star, without Smith however) with the Rain Parade’s David Roback, and was replaced by Dave Provost on bass duties. In the meantime, major A&M had also developed an interest in the band, which resulted in the Sandy Pearlman-produced Medicine Show. A lot of debate has already been going on about the production values (or lack of it) of the album, certainly among Dream Syndicate-fans who seem to be equally divided. Ironically, a similar thing had already happened six years earlier when fans of The Clash screamed “SELL-OUT” after they’d heard the Pearlman-produced second album Give ‘em Enough Rope. As with that infamous sophomore album, also Medicine Show’s acquired sound – grand and impeccably polished - can’t hide the fact that there are a bunch of terrific songs beneath the sheen, clean guitar sound, prominent keyboards and nearly bottomless drums. The catchy album opener “Still Holding on to You” immediately betrays this slicker approach, but also suggests the band seemed to have changed its stylistic course quite fundamentally. Whereas the debut was like a white hot, feedback-drenched assault, the songs gathered here for the most part fit in the same category as those by thoroughly “American” rockers like Neil Young (even though he’s Canadian) or even Bruce Springsteen.
“Daddy’s Girl” confirms this shift into rootsier territory, closer to their brethren of The Long Ryders (two of them helping out on backing vocals) and classic rhythm & blues. While the production generally doesn’t offend me, the irritating drums and overblown backing vocals (“GUN!”) of “Armed with an Empty Gun” turn it into my least favorite track. Luckily, there’s still Precoda’s “Bullet with My Name on It,” one of the better tributes to “Like a Hurricane”-era Neil Young I’ve heard. An early highlight on the album is Wynn’s “Burn,” which proves that a less spectacular approach doesn’t need to imply he can’t grow as a songwriter and/or lyricist, as his shady tales of sin and redemption found themselves a place in between classic themes in American literature and a cool and minimal noir style that would characterize many of his lyrics. The highlights of this album are (in my opinion) to be found at the end of the album. Both the title track and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” are quite similar, jam-based dirges that employ a simple, yet hypnotic groove over which Precoda can lay down his guitar textures and Wynn delivers his talk/sing-lyrics. They’re evidence enough that The Medicine Show is still very much a guitar-based album, but it’s the approach that’s different. The band stays away from chaotic avant-noise, which on the hand improves its accessibility, but on the other hand robs “ JC Stereo Blues” of an extra dimension, as all the live versions I’ve heard were actually much closer to exciting free-form jazz improvisation. If I’d never heard Live at Raji’s or hadn’t seen Wynn in concert, I’d probably freak out over these songs, but compared to the live versions these cuts rock, but don’t explode. In fact, “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” (a jam allegedly inspired by hearing the Paul Butterfield Band’s virtuoso jam “East-West”) had already appeared during the band’s earliest live shows (as “Open Hour”), which often were nothing but a series of lengthy half-improvised jams. Album closer “Merrittville” is less-groove based and another highlight in the Dream Syndicate-catalogue, even though this version is also overshadowed by the version on Live at Raji’s, on which another guitarist, playing as clean as Precoda here, does succeed in adding that extra dose of adrenalin. While it certainly doesn’t equal the blast of the debut, Medicine Show has the band exploring other – more conventional/less trendy – territory while coming up with a handful of terrific songs. In the process, they further helped creating a foundation for many bands (The Beat Farmers and The BoDeans are two that come to mind) who’d later dare to take the same direction and combined alternative rock with a sensitivity firmly rooted in more traditional music.
Tell Me When It’s Over / Bullet with My Name on It / Armed with an Empty Gun / The Medicine Show / John Coltrane Stereo Blues
This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album … Live! is – besides an annoyingly long title – a part of a Syndicate-show recorded at July 7th, 1984 in Chicago for WXRT-FM. Even though R.E.M. were the headlining act that night, The Syndicate’s performance was considered outstanding and subsequently released by A&M. It does have its merits, sure, but it’s a bit of an unlucky document in my opinion, not only because I’ve already heard several shows that easily topped this one (Steve Wynn’s website also hosts a community that distributes a series of semi-official releases (“Syndicated Dreams”), both of Wynn as a solo performer or with his backing bands) as well as earlier projects he was involved in), but also because the sound can be quite grating (yes, that’s an understatement). For a guitar-oriented band, that is. Not only has Dave Provost been replaced by Mark Walton, but also session man (during Medicine Show) Tommy Zvoncheck is present, and based on the first side of this EP (the first three songs), you’d expect The Dream Syndicate to be HIS project. I mean, if you’re the band that has released the seminal The Days of Wine and Roses and the excellent Medicine Show, you’re gonna put your secret weapon – Karl Precoda – in the spotlight, right? No, not here sir, as Zvoncheck’s keyboards are the most prominent instrument, making it sound more of a later Bob Seger-album than one by The Dream Syndicate, and there’s nothing wrong with Seger, but I expected louder guitars.
The opening track, a hard-hitting version of “Tell me When It’s Over,’ that because of the prominent rhythm section and keyboards already sounds like a disco-version of itself, is an acquired taste, but “Bullet with My Name on It” and “Armed with an Empty Gun,” are equally frustrating. Plus, according to my girlfriend, the vocals are quite irritating, and indeed … it’s hard to call Wynn – who sounds really nasally here – a magnificent vocalist, especially when the harmony vocals are, uh, REALLY out of key. Anyway, what this EP is about, what redeems the annoyance-inducing first three songs, are “The Medicine Show” and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.” The title-track of their second full-length is twice as convincing as the first three tracks, with Precoda finally getting the possibility to get noticed, but ultimately it evolves around the moment when Wynn announces “We’re gonna jam, we promised someone we’d jam tonight” and then puts his money where his mouth is: it’s during moments like these, when the band thrived on spur-of-the-moment invention and intensity, that they could truly transcend themselves. Highlighting the improvisational aspect of their vision – which seemed to become less important later on – it could go in each direction, their inspiration could last for half an hour or just as easily vanish within seconds, but this version is luckily an example of the band locking into a seemingly unconscious groove, with especially Precoda and Wynn giving their all. It’s just too bad that not the entire EP captures them at that peak.
Note 1: I have this EP on vinyl, but I don’t think
This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album … Live! was ever
released separately on CD, although some prints of Medicine Show got
these five cuts as bonus tracks.
Note 2: Shortly after this release, Precoda left the band, causing the band to disband for a while. Wynn played around with some of his friends and re-formed The Dream Syndicate with Paul Cutler on guitar in 1986. Precoda kept largely silent during the newt two decades, although he resurfaced in the new millennium with his project Last Days of May.
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