Dream Syndicate was one of the first bands from Los Angeles’ psychedelic revival (misleadingly dubbed the paisley underground) to reach a national audience. While many of the movement’s bands plumbed the Byrds/Buffalo Springfield or Pink Floyd archives for inspiration, Dream Syndicate’s weird, obsessive lyrics, relentless noise maelstroms — mixed with eerie/pretty otherworldly dirges and ballads — and singer Steve Wynn’s nasal rasping and ranting recalled the Velvet Underground, though (of course) they steadfastly denied that to be their intent. Following the release of a four-song demo on Wynn’s Down There label, the quartet made its proper debut on The Days of Wine and Roses, rawly produced by Chris D. (Flesh Eaters/Divine Horsemen). With driving, feedback- drenched guitars and stream-of-consciousness lyrical spume, the record appealed to sensitive English-major college radio programmers too young to shoot up to the Velvets the first time around. (The UK-only Tell Me When It’s Over EP adds three live cuts to the title track, drawn from the album.)
Original bassist Kendra Smith left; the band signed to A&M and recorded a second album, produced by Sandy Pearlman. Wynn’s songs remain driven and obsessive, but he seems more inclined to ape Mick Jagger than Lou Reed this time. Also, guitarist Karl Precoda cuts back on the feedback and the entire album has more of a traditional rock’n’roll feel. Early fans cried sell-out, but with eight- minute jam/raps like “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” included, that accusation doesn’t hold much water.
Nine-and-a-half minutes of that song also appear on This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album…Live!, a dismal document recorded live in Chicago during the 1984 tour that followed Medicine Show. (The two records were later paired on a domestic CD.)
After guitarist/producer Paul B. Cutler (ex-45 Grave) replaced Precoda, a revitalized Dream Syndicate released Out of the Grey, nine rugged rock-cowboy songs characterized by Wynn’s worn but hopeful vocals and Cutler’s obsessive distorto-guitar madness. Proceeding from Neil Young’s Crazy Horse period, songs like “Forest for the Trees,” “Now I Ride Alone,” “Slide Away” and “50 in a 25 Zone” (also released on a 12-inch with a bare-bones remix and three added tracks, including a maudlin version of “The Lonely Bull”) hum with enough coarse energy and stylistic insouciance to cover their compositional deficiencies. (The Out of the Grey CD contains the EP’s extra tracks.)
For Ghost Stories, the band actually enlisted Neil Young’s old producer (Elliot Mazer) and, whether through his guidance or their own maturity, transcended previous inconsistencies to make a great album. While still mainly offering the usual dirges and ballads (Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean” is a perfectly apt cover), Wynn’s songs here are lean and concise, his singing controlled and effective. The instrumental excesses have been stripped away, and solid music replaces noise excursions. If soul-in-torment songs and “traditional” rock song structures don’t appeal to you, skip this. Otherwise, it’s well worth checking out. The 2004 reissue adds eight bonus cuts from LA radio shows the band played at the time.
After the Ghost Stories tour, the band itself checked out, leaving Live at Raji’s, recorded in January ’89 at the noted Hollywood nightspot, as a rough’n’ready document of this band in its best — and final — stage. (The group’s fan club actually got in the last word, releasing a 1989 collection of outtakes and live tracks entitled It’s Too Late to Stop Now.) The 2004 reissue of Live at Raji’s adds four songs (“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” “Tell Me When It’s Over,” “All Along the Watchtower” and “When You Smile”) for a complete document of the show.