The Dream Syndicate's Sophomore Album Stereo Blues
Is Medicine Show a blueprint for all that was wrong with bands signing to major labels 25 years ago or is it a truly great, overlooked gem of an album? Well, the answer is somewhere in the middle.
Bands face a challenge when it comes to following up a successful debut album. You either risk repeating the same formula that made the original album a winner -- as the Jam did on This Is the Modern World, which was criticized for more or less being a virtual rewrite of In the City -- or you risk going in the opposite direction and coming up with an album that's about as far removed from its predecessor as possible, alienating the fans that loved the first album in the first place. The latter scenario was the situation that California-based '80s alternative rock group the Dream Syndicate found themselves mired in when its sophomore release Medicine Show saw the light of day in 1984.
A little back story: In 1982, the Dream Syndicate, fronted by Steve Wynn, was the preeminent band of a Los Angeles-based movement known as the Paisley Underground, which took its cues primarily from '60s jangle pop. Along with the Dream Syndicate, whose name recalls '60s San Jose garage group Syndicate of Sound, bands such as Three O'Clock, the Rain Parade, and the Bangs (later more famously known as the Bangles) -- as well as groups that followed, including the Long Ryders and Green on Red -- mined a sound that harkened back to the psychedelic L.A. of the Byrds. The Dream Syndicate, in particular, had become something of a buzz-band for delivering an independent album called The Days of Wine and Roses, which earned them comparisons to the Velvet Underground. Major labels soon beckoned and, eventually, the Dream Syndicate signed on with A&M Records. The band was then sent into the studio for five months with Sandy Pearlman, best known for producing and managing Blue Öyster Cult as well as orchestrating the Clash's second album, Give 'Em Enough Rope.
Partly due to the influence of touring outside of the confines of the L.A. music scene, partly due to a hard-rock producer helming the boards, and partly due to Wynn's insistence at trying something new, the Dream Syndicate wound up turning in an album that was so different from its debut, it might have been the oil to the preceding record’s water. It showed an affinity for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, if not Mick Jagger, neither of which was a cool touchstone for hipsters at the time. This was also at a time when metal was all the rage in the Sunset Strip music scene, which made the band and its associate acts something of anomalies to begin with. Wynn and his band were also now flirting with an American Gothic style of songwriting as well, with a particular influence of Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in the lyrics.
Ultimately, the fans that loved the band in the first place revolted and suddenly considered Wynn and his cohorts poseurs and sell-outs, and stayed away from the new album in droves. Meanwhile, the label couldn't get the record played on commercial radio outside of a handful of stations; not helping was the fact that five of its eight songs eclipsed the five-minute mark. Once A&M realized they had a lemon on their hands -- the record was filling up cut-out bins all over America -- they bid adieu to the Dream Syndicate by buying the band out of its contract, leaving it to languish in obscurity on minor labels for the remainder of the '80s.
In some quarters, Medicine Show, which was out-of-print on compact disc for about 20 years, is considered something of a nadir for '80s alternative rock. In his book Waiting For the Sun: A Rock 'n' Roll History of Los Angeles, writer Barney Hoskyns calls the album "disappointing." A review on allmusic.com that’s a little more lukewarm still notes that "in most respects, this (album) finds Wynn and his bandmates reaching for something they couldn't quite grasp, and Tom Zvoncheck's keyboards, for all their drama, never really find their way into the music."
Yet, despite the negative reviews, there are some who consider the disc to be something of a revisionist classic. One blogger on blogcritics.org writes that "Medicine Show is one of the great lost records of the '80s." Another blogger on gloriousnoise.com says “had Medicine Show been the album where the world was introduced to the Dream Syndicate, there's the possibility that we'd all be unanimously declaring its importance instead of talking about its divisiveness." Even Peter Buck of R.E.M., with whom the Dream Syndicate toured with back in the day of the album's release, has gotten in on the act, declaring that "this is an Exile On Main Street for the '80s."
So, is Medicine Show a blueprint for all that was wrong with bands signing to major labels 25 years ago or is it a truly great, overlooked gem of an album? Well, the answer is somewhere in the middle. It's not a horrible record, but it is also not the masterpiece some make it out to be. It is simply a solid, dependable LP with a few flaws that is worthy of a cursory look for those who are scholars of alternative rock.
While fans of Medicine Show will be relieved to see it back on record store shelves -- original copies were fetching amounts of more than $100 on eBay -- this is one of those albums that really has no business being on compact disc. This is a vinyl purist's album that is clearly delineated between the two sides of the long-player format. Side one features the band practicing their concision in a relatively lean, mean fashion (well, if you can overlook the fact that two of the five songs are more than five minutes long), while side two finds the Dream Syndicate stretching out, jamming and soloing away. In a way, Medicine Show is a little like a trip to Disneyland in distilled form. Tracks one through six are like the drive to the California Mecca of fun and excitement, with virtually each song building up to the point of arrival with a just-can't-wait feeling. Track seven ("John Coltrane Stereo Blues") is the destination: a nearly nine-minute ride of reckless, youthful abandon that takes your breath away. Track eight and the final song ("Merrittville") is the ride home where all that's left are pleasant memories, a journey tinged with sadness that the vacation is nearly over.
The album does start out with more of a whimper than a bang. "Still Holding On To You" sounds a little like a roots-rock cross between Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a lesser Bruce Springsteen, making one wonder if Pearlman forgot that he wasn’t producing BÖC anymore. (All that's missing is a little cowbell to make the song veer into parody.) The follow-up track, "Daddy’s Girl", a three-minute saloon bust-'em-up, fares even worse and would be a complete embarrassment if not for a witty line that proves Wynn was dependably sleazy wordsmith: "My baby wants to go to the place where she first made love. . . / Well, take you on down to the liquor store / Wipe out everything that came before / What else can I do / For daddy’s girl?"
However, the album dramatically improves musically from that point forward. "Burn" does exactly that: it smolders with a dramatic intensity with guitars that churn like chum in waters infested with bloodthirsty sharks. In an interesting bit of sequencing, "Armed with an Empty Gun" and "Bullet with My Name on it" follow. The former throbs with a rich vitality and the latter is a slow-burning ballad that is arguably the most Neil Young-like track on the album. They're pleasant enough songs, along with "The Medicine Show", which opens up side two.
The track worth zeroing in comes after. Let me just say four words to you: "John Coltrane Stereo Blues". The track is easily the album’s centerpiece and is the only song on the album co-written by the entire band. The song was meticulously rehearsed by the Dream Syndicate in warm-ups for the recording session: a 25-minute version of the song was even said to exist, but the tapes were purportedly destroyed after a fire burned down the recording studio not long after the album was completed. Still, even in a more truncated form, "John Coltrane Stereo Blues" is an extended exercise in buoyant repetition and shares a certain commonality with the similarly long "Marquee Moon" by Television in that the same rhythmic pattern is more or less played throughout. It features a propulsive bass line that never gets old, no matter how many times you play the song, and it also contains an electric guitar freak out that comes pretty close to peeling paint off walls. It also has probably one of the greatest come-ons in all of '80s alternative rock -- probably one of the great masculine lines this side of Morphine or the National, in fact -- when Wynn rolls this off his lips: "I've got some John Coltrane on the stereo baby make you feel alright / I've got some fine wine in the freezer mama I know what you like / . . . I said that man works hard all day and he can do what he wants to at night." The song really elevates the album and is easily the talking point for all that is positive about Medicine Show. What then follows is a rocking mid-tempo tinkle-tinkle piano ballad, "Merrittville", which is also one of the stronger tracks on the record, although Wynn's vocals seem to overreach at times, as though the song was somehow over his head. Taking it down a half-octave or so might have helped.
This reissue of Medicine Show is appended with a 1984 live EP called This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album . . . Live!, which marks the first time that the five-song mini-album has been issued in complete form on CD. Meant to be a stop-gap between Medicine Show and the next album for A&M that never materialized, the EP showcases the band playing a gig in Chicago for a strangely receptive audience, given the rough ride Medicine Show received. ("Last time we were here, we had stuff thrown at us. This is much nicer," quips Wynn at one point during the proceedings.) The extended play opens with a track from The Days of Wine and Roses, "Tell Me When It's Over", which is given an E-Street Band treatment with a rousing, rocking piano -- it just needs a saxophone to veer completely into Born to Run territory. What follows is a smattering of songs from Medicine Show, although the live versions don't even approach eclipsing the studio tracks. "Bullet with My Name on It" is given an anemic treatment, with a bass guitar the only instrument usually behind Wynn’s voice, particularly on the first verse -- a fate that also befalls "The Medicine Show" as well. "Armed with an Empty Gun" suffers from a polyrhythmic drum part that's just too busy in the song's midsection. As for the live "John Coltrane Stereo Blues"? It lacks the intensity of the album track and has a weak Hammond organ throughout that turns it into a bland Spencer Davis Group reading. Overall, the EP is a nice addition to give music buyers more bang for their buck, and give people a peek into the live dynamic of the band at the time, but it is ultimately unessential.
Medicine Show is usually cited as a new stage in the evolution of Steve Wynn as a songwriter and really marks the turning point of the sort of artist he would grow into. As an album, it is a bit of a time capsule. It has a distinct '80s production feel to it which makes it sound a little dated, and it offers a view of a band that wasn't content to just repeat itself on its major-label debut at a time when alternative bands were only just beginning to court moving up to that next level. Despite its inconsistency, it is an album that is worthy of examination -- particularly if you've combed through most of the big U.S. acts of the '80s alternative movement, such as Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, R.E.M., the db's, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, and the Pixies. While it is not as necessary as some would make it out to be, it does offer a flash of utter brilliance in "John Coltrane Stereo Blues", a song ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal.
At its heart, Medicine Show offers very little snake oil: despite a weak start, the songs here are well-crafted and inviting, and it is perhaps apt that it has been dusted off and offered up again for an audience that might be more readily positioned to truly appreciate the album for what it is. Not as a sell-out move, but a very fine album on a major label at a time when there was a lot of dross polluting the airwaves. Medicine Show should be looked through the eyes of a band trying to flex its muscle and not repeat itself the second time around. That the album is now getting another chance through its reissue, considering its troubled history, is a bit of a revelation unto itself.