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The Dream Syndicate - Medicine Show

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Artist: The Dream Syndicate

Album: Medicine Show

Label: Water

Review date: Aug. 11, 2010

What’s a band to do when their debut album becomes a more-or-less instant classic, the defining rock album held up by critics under the banner "The New Thing"? In the case of The Dream Syndicate, after touring extensively, they underwent a lineup change and went back into the studio in 1984 for a far more extended stay than for The Days of Wine and Roses, which they recorded in just three days. Bassist Kendra Smith had departed, to be replaced by Al Green sideman Dave Provost, but the biggest change was the selection of producer Sandy Pearlman, best known for his work with Blue Oyster Cult.

By all accounts, Pearlman was an intensely tough taskmaster, and the band was in the studio seven days a week, twelve-plus hours each day, playing and perfecting the new songs that leader/singer Steve Wynn had written after finishing the tour. Of the eight songs on Medicine Show, six were written by Wynn, one by lead guitarist Karl Precoda, and the lengthy jam "John Coltrane Studio Blues" is credited to the full quartet.

It’s remarkable that, given the length of time spent honing and recording, the album didn’t have all of the rough edges sanded down — it’s still a rough-and-tumble experience, with a more aggressive tone than their debut. Wine and Roses has plenty of sharp points on it, but has an overall hazy quality that’s absent here. Wynn’s quoted as saying that he tried to adopt a "fearless" attitude for Medicine Show, and the straightforward, often angry tone conveys that going-for-it feeling.

While some of the songs here still have a Velvet Underground vibe to them (check out Wynn’s vocals on opener "Still Holding On To You"), there’s an overall swagger that also brings to mind The Stooges and Stones as well. The piano and organ by sideman Tom Zvoncheck is integral to songs like "Still Holding On To You" and "Burn,” adding detail to even the latter’s dense, driving finale. The general atmosphere of the album echoes the anxiety of a band being pushed, and pushing themselves; the second lyric of "You’re gone, and you’re not coming home" is followed with a fatalistic "There’s not a lot I can do."

The stomping drums, rowdy piano and back-alley ambience of "Armed With An Empty Gun" make it a winner, but the one song by Precoda, "Bullet With My Name On It,” is the most memorable song here. Despite its sometimes lugubrious pacing and arguably excessive 6:23 length, the chorus is instantly indelible. Ironically, it might be the piece most similar to the band’s debut album — it could easily have fit amongst those songs.

Recording Medicine Show, and the successive tour, proved to be too much for the opposing personalities of Wynn and Precoda, and the latter departed at the end of 1984. This album has never gotten the same attention as Days of Wine and Roses, and perhaps the more overt rock sensibility is to blame, but in terms of songwriting it would be hard to argue that one is more successful than the other. This reissue will hopefully serve as a reminder of how good the band was on both. For completists, the EP "This is not the new Dream Syndicate album…Live!" from the same year is also included, with strong versions of several of the album tracks.

By Mason Jones

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