The Dream Syndicate

The Velvet Underground? Who are they?

The early Rolling Stones, more often than not, improved upon the old blues songs they either rewrote as "originals" or credited outright. And the New York Dolls made music more exciting and harder rocking than the Stones ever managed. The Jam pounded out singles faster, more exciting, and intense than the Who or Small Faces could match even in their prime. You see, there's this popular lie going around that good bands all have "original sounds," whatever that means. Truth is, very, very few bands - the Beatles, Roxy Music, the Stooges, James Brown, Captain Beefheart - really deliver music that the world hasn't heard before; most of what passes for innovation is simply a cleverly disguised rehash of old pop music, decked out in new clothes for "modern" tastes. You could argue that there hasn't been anything truly new since a certain genre of rock that offended old hippies and revolutionized the music industry emerged in the mid-'70s - and no, I'm not talking about punk (which amounted to '60s garage rock with the amps cranked up), I mean disco. And were disco and funk, the last truly new forms of music created in rock (along with rap, which came about at the same time), really that great? Art-rock doesn't count as "new" because it was none of the above, and the Beatles and Beach Boys did the same thing in the mid-'60s much better. Most rock and roll trots out the same old chords and verse-chorus-verse song structures; what matters is how creative you juggle the time-honored ingredients, so that the jambalaya still comes out hot and tasty. This doesn't amount to an argument for Dire Straits/Hootie & the Blow-me-fish boring, stale pub rock; bands do have to offer something new and interesting to the traditional rock format, they have to trot out the same D-A-G, E-F-D chords in a novel fashion. What makes the difference between a good band that catches your ear and sounds like they're doing something "new" and your mediocre Collective Bush Blues Traveler Matchbox 20s, is more often than not the one crucial, overlooked ingredient: personality. That's right, presentation and performance are key - it's not the chord, but how you play the chord that matters. Music, like any other art, is a reflection of humanity, and what makes people interesting, and some people more interesting than others, is personality. So basically what I am saying is that with music, and with people, the greatest crime is facelessness, to simply amount to another of the herd. Bands and persons have to come up with some gimmick to make themselves stand out, even if it's not an original concept by any means.

I may or may not have wasted that somewhat muddled attempt at aesthetic theory on a page devoted to a band as minor in the overall scheme of things (not to mention the overall scheme of rock) as the Dream Syndicate. And my theory might be exposed as kind of shaky if someone takes the time to dismantle it. Anyhow, the Dream Syndicate were the greatest Velvet Underground cover band of all time - only they wrote originals, and leader Steve Wynn disingenously claimed that the Velvets weren't on his mind. The template was the 2nd VU album, White Light/White Heat, only the Dream Syndicate reworked the same groove with a firmer, more assured hand, and improved upon the Velvet Underground. That might sound like heresy to Lou Reed fans, but....well, Lou Reed fans aren't going to cotton to my opinion on the most overrated songwriter and bandleader in rock. The 2nd VU album was a pretentious, noisy mess ruined by a mindless "Louie, Louie/In A Gadda Vidda" hybrid called "Sister Ray". Plus, since to my knowledge no one in the Dream Syndicate was a serious heroin addict, their music had real energy and rock drive, and wallowed gloriously in the pure groove/sound of the electric grungey drone that was their reason for being. Kind of like Sonic Youth at their most sonic, but minus the offensive "we're cooler than you" pretensions and with some actual song by song consistency. The problem is that - and this is probably the only instance in which I actually (gasp!) agree with the Spin Record Guide - it only lasted for one album, the Dream Syndicate's first. After that they were simply a decent roots-rock band; nothing bad, and a nice grungey alternative to the bland '80s mainstream, but nothing special. They formed in 1981 and spearheaded the fairly forgettable "Paisley Underground" of early '80s L.A., which amounted to indie rockers like the Rain Parade, Green On Red, and (believe it or not) the Bangles raiding their precious '60s record collections and coming up with mostly pale imitations. The Dream Syndicate lost a pair of crucial original members in the mid-'80s, guitarist Karl Precoda and bassist Kendra Smith, but soldiered on anyway, led by singer/guitarist Steve Wynn. Since their 1988 breakup, Wynn has released several solo albums to some critical acknowledgement. After leaving the band after the first album, Smith formed the band Opal, who evolved into Mazzy Starr (minus Smith); she released her own solo album sometime in the mid-'90s.

P.S. Jambalaya is a Cajun form of stew that is never mixed the same way twice, and that differs from gumbo in that no okra is used (plus it's less soupy). The essential ingredients are rice, some form of meat, preferably some vegetables such as tomatoes, definitely hot spices, and whatever else you might have on hand that would taste good in the mix (or that you fished out of the bayou).

The Days of Wine & Roses (1982) ****

The band's undeniable peak and the one album to own and then forget about the rest of their career if you feel like, is also the most blatant ripoff/homage to the 2nd VU album ever - only it's better than the VU. There's as much careening feedback and white noise as on the contemporaneous Damaged by fellow scenesters Black Flag, but in a much different context and for a much different mood - but both rock equally hard. Steve Wynn's nasal, Dylanesque vocals and literary-pretensions songwriting are front and center, but it's Karl Precoda's guitar that's the real star here: grungey and corrosive, overloaded with a ridiculous amount of amped up distortion, it's the record's groove, guts, beauty, and heart. Wynn doesn't have much of a way with melody or song structure, but he's an expert at tone and overall feel; whatever this album's weaknesses are, it always sounds great. That sound is what you'll remember even if the individual songs don't stand out that much. But of course the songs do all sound different from each other, and a few even register as memorable, particularly the opener "Tell Me When It's Over". "That's What You Always Say," and "When You Smile," (remade from a pre-album 4 song EP) are standouts, but the album's centerpiece is the final cut, the title track - a 7-minute epic workout that hardly anyone else would have tried in 1982 (due to bad memories of '70s "jamming"). This album has historical significance, then - everyone else in 1982 was either playing New Wave or hardcore punk, but the Dream Syndicate were reviving the sound of classic rock, with their dirty guitar sound and catchy non-catchiness of their hooky non-hooks, thus paving the way for the thousands of alternative and indie rock bands that would follow. Karl Precoda's one songwriting contribution, "Halloween," comes from being scared by that Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle, and the great wisdom it imparts is that things on TV aren't always real. Kendra Smith even gets to play Nico on the ballad, "Too Little, Too Late". This is what people ideally want the VU to have sounded like, and some have fooled themselves into believing the VU did, but the VU didn't ever sound this good. And looking forwards, it does the excessive rock guitar solo with feedback thing better than both Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. except at their excessively peaky - so what are you waiting for?

The Medicine Show (1984)

The Dream Syndicate made their major label debut and got called sellouts, though in retrospect such charges hardly seem fair. Produced by Sandy Pearlman of Blue Oyster Cult fame, who the Dream Syndicate do a good approximation of on "Burn" one of their best songs. "Merrittville," and "Medicine Show," are long-winded and wordy, though, as Wynn begins to dominate the band over Precoda's guitar, which is flashier and cleaner here - which isn't an improvement. My comments are based on the songs found on a compilation I have; I've never heard the rest of the album.

Out of the Grey (1986) **1/2

With both Precoda and Smith gone, the Dream Syndicate are a slightly different, and considerably weaker band. New guitarist Paul Cutler is a more traditional guitarist than Precoda, but he lacks Precoda's inspired sloppily excessive amateurism, and so isn't an interesting guitarist at all. Wynn is still Wynn, a non-melodicist who thinks he's a pulp fiction paperback writer, and thus the Dream Syndicate are revealed for what they are: not a bad band, not a good band, simply an average, mediocre band. If they pulled through your local college gin mill in the mid-'80s, then lucky you, I'm sure they were more than worth the price of admission and having to deal with a sweaty crowd of inebriated hipsters and fratboys. Curiously enough, the shadow of the VU no longer hangs over the Dream Syndicate - the template has shifted to Zuma, Tonight's the Night, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and the second side of Rust Never Sleeps. Only that Neil Young guy, whoever he was, wrote real melodies, didn't he? The exception is "Boston," a tongue in cheek tribute to Van Morrison. "Boston" is based on a time in the early '70s when Van Morrison was recording in that city and drunkenly calling up then-DJ Peter Wolf (of the J. Geils Band) and harassing him. It's a nice story, and Wynn has a deep knowledge and respect for rock's past, but it reads better on paper than it sounds, which has always been a problem for the self-consciously literary Wynn. The one track that really works for me is "Drinking Problem," a throwaway that has better lyrics than a tune, but hey, it's an obvious throwaway, which is why it works.

Ghost Stories (1988) ***

To my knowledge this is the first Dream Syndicate album that does not sound like a tribute to anyone. Yeah, there's VU feedback and Neil worship, but those elements don't dominate the record. There's more variety here than on any other DS album, with even a couple of piano ballads thrown in for good measure. They're not very good, but they're a nice touch in the overall scheme, and Wynn's songwriting does show substantial signs of growth. In fact, he's never been better - "I Have Faith," is perhaps the best song he's ever written, and one of the few DS songs that possesses a catchy, (gasp!) melodic, anthemic chorus. Mostly this sounds like generic indie-rock, only it's on a major-label: Wynn shows good taste (the only other original member left by now is drummer Dennis Duck) and a healthy respect for classic rock, which as you should know never guarantees a healthy dose of excitement. "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," is a quite appropriate blues cover for the DS' drone-rock; too much of this drags in a very boring way. But "Black," and "Loving the Sinner, Hating the Sin," and a few others are strong enough to stand up to repeated listenings, and it's all competently and professionally performed, which makes this album impossible to hate or write off. It's pretty hard to get worked up over this album or make it memorable, though - the inspired amateurism of the debut I'll easily swap any day.

Tell Me When It's Over: The Best of the Dream Syndicate (1992) ***1/2

This compilation contains just about everything you need to hear from the Dream Syndicate. It collects most of the songs worth hearing from the first album and its weaker followups; though the first album works better as a mood piece, something that I actually put on and listen to all the way through, this compilation is stronger song for song. It's a best-of, after all. The original "When You Smile," is better than the Days of Wine and Roses version. The other rarity found among the contents is a cover of "Let It Rain," that blows Eric Clapton off of his lazy MOR ass - it actually rocks! You see, the problem with the Dream Syndicate is that they sounded great, but had some serious problems in the songwriting department. Or, as Steve Wynn admits in the liner notes, the DS would have made a great cover band. Too bad they didn't do more, but enough of Wynn's originals are strong enough on this compilation to make it worth checking out.

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