Rock Album Review: The Dream Syndicate — Far More Than “Beautiful Losers”
By Steve Erickson
It’s easy to mythologize The Days of Wine and Roses because this album documents a band whose lineup splintered almost immediately.
The Dream Syndicate — 4-CD box set, History Kinda Pales When It and You Are Aligned and The Days of Wine and Roses (Fire Archive)
Punk’s year zero, when the baggage of rock music’s history was wiped away, was always a fiction. By the early ‘80s in Los Angeles, the illusion that the scene was able to start from scratch had become unsustainable. The scene had splintered in several directions, including hardcore. Theatrical art-rock and Goth arrived as niche options. Looking to the past as a way to move forward became a common strategy. X’s incorporation of rockabilly and country riffs into punk popularized a turn towards roots-rock. The Paisley Underground scene, as its name implied, took inspiration from ’60s psychedelia. At the time, Dream Syndicate were seen as making use of the same maneuver. But their 1982 debut album, The Days of Wine and Roses, stands outside of this categorization because it looked forward. The liner notes for Fire Archive’s new 4-CD box set History Kinda Pales When It and You Are Aligned and The Days of Wine and Roses credits the band for coming up with the loud-quiet-loud structures used by the Pixies and Nirvana.
Originally released by Slash Records’ Ruby division, The Days of Wine and Roses has been reissued several times. The album contains the band’s most essential music of the period, along with the contributions from their self-titled debut ep, and the live-on-the-radio The Day Before Wine and Roses. (Although the latter is now out of print, this box set includes two songs from that session.) History Kinda Pales When It and You Are Aligned adds a 1981 single by Wynn’s band 15 Minutes (whose A-side “That’s What You Always Say” would be re-recorded on The Days of Wine and Roses), rehearsal demos, and two previously unreleased live sets.
It’s easy to mythologize The Days of Wine and Roses because this album documents a band whose lineup splintered almost immediately. Producer Chris D. doesn’t remember whether it was recorded in one day or two, but he captured the band’s sound live in an 8-track studio with minimal overdubs. Bassist Kendra Smith left before they signed to A&M and released their second album, Medicine Show. Guitarist Karl Precoda followed after Medicine Show. Some of their music, especially 1986’s Out of the Grey, remains severely underrated, even though more polished production concealed the strength of singer/guitarist Steve Wynn’s songwriting. The Velvet Underground influence on The Days of Wine and Roses is impossible to miss — the band’s name came from LaMonte Young’s avant-classical group, with whom John Cale had played – but its departure from punk and post-punk’s disdain for classic rock is equally evident. Wynn’s vocals borrow from Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. The Dream Syndicate also found common ground between Reed and Neil Young, applying their technique of torturing guitar strings to express intense emotions with as few many notes as possible. (Strangely, their live cover of “Mr. Soul,” included on the British 12-inch single of “Tell Me When It’s Over,” is omitted from this set.) But Dream Syndicate’s subsequent albums moved a little too far into rock tradition, with the Doors looming over Medicine Show.
The tension between lead guitarist Karl Precoda and drummer Dennis Duck was at the heart of The Days of Wine and Roses. Precoda’s howls of feedback were used as another group might deploy keyboards — as both ornamentation and as the basis for several songs. Despite all of the critical comparisons to the Velvet Underground, Duck’s drumming bore no resemblance to Maureen Tucker’s. The band’s energy stemmed from its rhythm section. Duck sounds slightly ahead of the beat, especially on his fills, as though he was wired to the point that he was determined to complete the song as fast as possible. Yet he was just as adept at the jazzy shuffle of “Until Lately” and the ominously deliberate pace of “Halloween.” Even on their extremely raw first ep, released on Wynn’s own Down There label, Wynn and Precoda’s guitars jostle for space around each other, with Television and Crazy Horse serving as models.
The Days of Wine and Roses doesn’t entirely escape the trap of record collector rock, but it mined its influences in unexpected ways. Smith’s sole turn as lead singer, on “Too Little, Too Late,” paralleled the three songs Nico sung with the Velvet Underground. But her clean, relaxed voice is closer to British folk music and Precoda’s guitar is at its most bluesy.
“Until Lately” could be a Dylan song written for a film noir soundtrack.
As with most box sets, the bonus material digs for scraps. A live show in Tucson, recorded from backstage, provides some nuggets of gold. The murk, in which Duck’s drums are as loud as Wynn’s vocals, enhances a take on the music that is more abrasive than anything found on their roughest studio recordings. They shoot into the ether like a jam band — in their case inspired by free jazz and minimalism rather than the Grateful Dead. (The cover of “Piece of My Heart” confirms my suspicion that Big Brother & the Holding Company were one of Dream Syndicate’s major inspirations.) The other live performance, recorded in Reseda, California, is much more disposable. Including all the tracks on The Day Before Wine and Roses would have been a better decision. The latter could have replaced the demos on the third disc, where even the most promising early drafts never fully pan out. The 10 and 1/2 minute instrumental “Outside the Dream Syndicate” can’t transcend its White Light/White Heat worship — it is bogged down by the 5 minute mark.
The Dream Syndicate’s lack of commercial success slipped them into rock’s “beautiful loser” mythology, yet the band members avoided the personal tragedies that colored so many musicians’ lives and careers. They reunited in 2017 and the occasion proved to be anything but a cynical cash-in. How Did I Find Myself Here?, the first album from their second incarnation, was stronger than anything the original band released after The Days of Wine and Roses. The power of their debut album may have been a one-off, though one wonders what Medicine Show might’ve achieved with the presence of Smith, a stronger group of songs, and another turn with Chris D. — rather than Blue Oyster Cult manager Sandy Pearlman — as producer. On the other hand, Wynn has sustained the band’s creativity much longer than anyone might have guessed in 1982.
Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.