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The Dream Syndicate – Medicine Show (Water)

19 June 2010

In the early 80s, when what we now call alternative rock was still in its infancy, the DREAM SYNDICATE was a leading light in the L.A. underground. While the quartet, led by singer/songwriter STEVE WYNN, has been lumped in with the so-called Paisley Underground, in truth the band had limbs sticking out from under that blanket. While the group had plenty of psychedelia in its DNA, it was equally influenced by the VELVET UNDERGROUND (indeed, it was one of the first bands of the 80s to take its inspiration from the Velvets’ early, noise-ridden work), and Wynn’s songwriting drew as much strength from pre-punk writers like BOB DYLAN and NEIL YOUNG as anyone ostensibly cooler.

The Days of Wine & Roses, the band’s first album, was an underground sensation, produced by L.A. scene icon (and leader of the FLESHEATERS) CHRIS D and obsessed with the kind of distorted six-string mania that allowed guitarist KARL PRECODA free reign to abuse his axe. The album’s notoriety was enough to bring the majors sniffing around, with A&M making the right offer and the Syndicate releasing Medicine Show in 1984. Produced by the notorious SANDY PEARLMAN, whose credits ranged from BLUE ÖYSTER CULT to the DICTATORS to the CLASH, the album was considered a sellout by many of their fans, despite being one of Wynn’s favorites. The record had a brief CD release in the early 90s and quietly appeared as a download last year, but it has essentially lay out of print for nearly two decades.

Now given a remaster and re-release, Medicine Show is finally given a chance to show its quality, minus the expectations heaped on it in the early 80s. Twenty-six years on, it’s difficult to hear anything that might have deserved accusations of selling out. The production is far more clear than Chris D’s rough-and-ready job from 1982, but it’s hardly slick. The band is certainly tighter, less frenzied, a product both of Pearlman’s relentess recording/rehearsal schedule and Wynn’s more structured songwriting. Having evolved past the cathartic bursts of the first record, here Wynn was going for something more precise, more carefully dramatic – indeed, his writing here is arguably the first flowering of the songwriting style he proffers today.

The result is a more controlled but threatening Dream Syndicate. From the paranoia of “Bullet With My Name On It” and the fatalism of “Merrittville” to the creepy obsession of “Daddy’s Girl” and “Still Holding On to You” and the false bravado of “Armed With An Empty Gun,” the band speaks meaner and strikes harder, trading a wildly spraying submachine gun for a sniper rifle. With less room to move, Precoda’s solos become more concise and angular, not to mention lethal, and Wynn becomes the untrustworthy troubadour that’s marked his artistic ascent since. Fans of the Syndicate’s feedback ‘n’ chaos epics, meanwhile, have plenty of candy to chew on. “Burn” and the title track find electric fury supporting Wynn’s desolate emotional landscapes, while “John Stereo Coltrane Blues” becomes a rampaging beast of repetition, free playing and barely contained insanity, a concert centerpiece that is the band’s wildest, most unrestrained moment.

Water’s reissue gives the album pristine sound that only highlights how sharp the band’s knives had become. It also includes This is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album…Live!, an EP featuring four Show tunes and a piano-dominated cover of the first LP’s “Tell Me When It’s Over” – it’s not really essential but it’s nice to have. Following that tour, Precoda left, the band realigned itself around guitarist PAUL B. CUTLER and made two more fine, even more song-oriented records, including the excellent Ghost Stories. Medicine Show remains a key point in the evolution of the Dream Syndicate – it’s the sound of a great band truly coming into its own, finding the focus to fulfill its potential and become, if not a titan alongside its inspirations, an influential icon in its own right.


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