Blast from the Past
By Ken Scotch
What goes around, Comes Around
There are a lot of bands getting the buzz these days. I’m talking about retro bands such as: the Hives, the Strokes, the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, the White Stripes, the Deadly Snakes, the Hot Snakes, and the Vines among others. And, to be honest, I like a lot of these bands. But like many other bands in other genres, they wouldn’t exist if there hadn’t been an earlier group Lewis and Clarking a trail for them to follow.
The Dream Syndicate was the 1980’s band that blazed that trail for all of them. While the Smiths often get the credit for bringing back the guitar at a time when most bands were experimenting with technology, it was the Dream Syndicate who brought back the whole fuckin’ garage as well. Guitarist Steve Wynn formed the band in Los Angeles, with the original lineup including fellow guitar-mate Karl Precoda, Dennis Duck on drums and the seductive Kendra Smith on bass. Unfortunately this lineup would only remain together long enough to release an ep and a masterstroke debut album, “The Days of Wine and Roses”. Maybe they only delivered one full-length effort, but oh what an effort it was!
Opening the album with the power chord-heavy, “Tell Me When it’s Over” the band let you know right away who they were and what they were about. Highlights of the album included the rocking, “That’s What You Always Say”, the appropriately eerie “Halloween” and the title track. However, what stood out most was the very Velvet Underground-influenced “When You Smile” and Kendra Smith’s turn on vocals, “Too Little, Too Late”. For just as the Dream Syndicate laid the foundation for many of those aforementioned bands today, the Velvet Underground had originally laid the groundwork for them.
“When You Smile” opens with a burst of screeching guitar feedback, followed by Steve Wynn murmuring apocalyptic lyrics in a disembodied tone that echoes Lou Reed at his best. The song slowly builds up from a dirge-like drone and follows into an almost understated sonic attack. It is this subtlety in this song that best illustrates what separates their earliest, and finest, work from the more generic stuff which followed. While almost every song on “The Days of Wine and Roses” works on one level or another, there would only be a couple of stand-out tracks on the follow-up album, “The Medicine Show”.
Both “Merritville” and particularly “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” on the second album are strong songs, and the title track isn’t bad, but the band clearly missed Kendra Smith. Her soulful bass playing and hypnotic vocals were replaced by a much more pedantic musician named Dave Provost. It was the beginning of constant lineup changes for the band, with each one in turn only furthering watering down the group’s original power.
While “When You Smile” would not have been out of place on the Velvet’s “Loaded”, any of the tracks off the Dream Syndicate’s third album, “Out of the Grey” would more likely be found on a Third Eye Blind record. And unfortunately, neither of the live albums that the band released, “This is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album…Live” and the, even tamer, “Live at Raj’s” feature the original lineup. Still, that should not, in any way, take away from the place in rock history’s pantheon that their seminal debut album rightfully placed them.
So as I listen to bands such as the Strokes or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I take them for what they are and enjoy them at face value. However, I must admit they still sound in many ways to me like only a pale imitation of the Dream Syndicate circa 1982. I wonder if that’s how original Velvet Underground fans felt when they first heard, “The Days of Wine and Roses”?