Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Dream Syndicate

Oddly placed as part of the early 80’s emerging “Paisley Underground” scene (man, most people and bands despised that label!), the Dream Syndicate certainly had some 60’s influences but that was far from their only touchstone. There were also touches of punk rock and, most obviously, the Velvet Underground (even the band name is taken from an early project that John Cale was involved in), not only in Steve Wynn’s voice and lyrics, but in Karl Precoda’s Lou Reed meets Neil Young cacophonous guitar playing.

Whenever I hear this band I flash back on the early 80’s underground LA scene, with the amazing variety of bands and places to play. The DS played in lofts, parties and other unusual locations. They immediately garnered a following and remained successful throughout their career even through personnel changes, but the early band is definitely my favorite.

Their initial 4 song self-released 12” EP showed all of their strengths right away. Drummer Dennis Duck (ex-Human Hands) was a fantastic metronome – nothing flashy, but solid as a rock and playing just what the songs needed – and locked in with bassist Kendra Smith, who was simplistic but steady. Wynn’s guitar playing was also nothing fancy, but he wasn’t afraid to explore rhythms and interesting chord changes and he sounded great with Karl’s feedback and distortion riffs. They truly were a 2 guitar team that worked with each other, complimenting the other’s playing and creating a whole, with weaving interplay and not simply a strict rhythm/lead combo.

All of the songs on the EP are excellent, with their elements fusing together and highlighting Steve’s songwriting. Culminating with “Some Kinda Itch”, they show their propensity for exploring the songs both musically and vocally and not being afraid to stretch out and go for the intensity and passion. Damn fine stuff!

The album, The Days of Wine and Roses on Ruby Records, is slightly more produced, but still sounds like a superb band! Opening with “Tell Me When It’s Over” they show their use of dynamics as well as the continued guitar interaction. I have to say that I loved Karl’s playing and he was definitely one of my fave players from the early 80’s in LA. So, I may be effusive when writing about him! I know that the band was never the same after he left – Steve just didn’t gel together with any other players like he did with Precoda.

“Definitely Clean” is pretty high-energy, but still Velvet-y sounding. Kendra and Dennis open “That’s What They Always Say” showing how tight they were together and form the basic groove of the song that let Steve and Karl do their things over the top of this! “Then She Remembers” is almost out of control – loads of noisy riffs and Wynn basically tearing his voice out at the end! Steve gets to play a little more on “Halloween” and shows off his cleaner, vibrato-bar-heavy, dissonant licks.

A reprise of “When You Smile” from the EP opens side two of the album with Precoda’s screeching feedback over Steve’s quiet picking and singing – fairly reminiscent of VU’s “Heroin”. They did change up the song enough to deserve another take and Karl sounds like he is doing his best to strangle his guitar throughout! “Until Lately” is definitely one of the highlights of the record! Opening with a catchy bass riff the band then blasts in with power and distortion, but continues to bring it back down to the groove. Cool lyrics about someone going through some unnamed change in their life that builds and builds with harmonica fighting with the guitars and Wynn screaming and demanding more information from himself!

Letting the listener catch their breath, Kendra sings on “Too Little, Too Late” and displays a lovely voice – a little like a more melodic Nico! She was the first to leave the band – to form Opal – and that changed the dynamic of the band as her bass playing provided a solid, minimalist backdrop for the tunes and she had a good stage presence, as well. There is nice slide work from Precoda on this tune, also.

The album closes with the title track, which is another tour de force for the band and especially Wynn who actually takes a chord solo and stretches the song out for his improvisations.

While almost all popular music at the time was utter and total over-produced crap, the 80’s was actually a very exciting and creative time in the underground LA music scene, producing some of the best bands that the city ever saw! These records are another superb reminder of that time!

PS - According to Wikipedia, when Karl left the band, he did so to pursue a career in screenwriting! A real shame because he was a fantastically innovative guitarist and the later versions of the band, while interesting, never touched the original lineup in intensity or originality.