The Dream Syndicate were instant hipster faves with their 1982 full-length debut, The Days Of Wine And Roses. Along with bands such as Rain Parade and Green On Red, Dream Syndicate came to be known as charter members of the unfortunately named Paisley Underground. As the movement’s name implies, the tendency was towards the music of the '60s, particularly the strummed guitars and clear harmonies of The Byrds.
For The Dream Syndicate, being heralded as overnight rock saviors was a little disconcerting. They were immediately signed by a major label (A&M), and were assigned a big-name rock producer, Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash) for the follow-up. When Medicine Show appeared in 1984, it shocked and angered many of the original fans of the group, and was a commercial flop.
With the passage of time comes perspective, a fact which has helped bolster the standing of Medicine Show a great deal. What was once considered a blatant sell-out is now seen for what it actually was: a tremendous leap forward.
The eight songs that make up Medicine Show were perfect for the then ubiquitous LP format. There were five relatively concise cuts on side one, and three long-form workouts on side two. This would prove to be Karl Precoda’s last record with the band, and his and Steve Wynn’s guitars are one of the big reasons Medicine Show has come to be so highly regarded.
Opening track “Still Holding On To You” is a definitive example of the “college rock” sound of the mid-'80s. It is hard to believe that Dream Syndicate fans did not like this music at the time. The tune resembles a harder-edged Badfinger. Precoda’s guitar cuts like a crystal all the way through, and the production is amazingly clear.
“Daddy’s Girl” takes an intriguing rockabilly turn, while “Burn” is Americana writ large. The dash of Neil Young-inspired guitar in “Burn” helps the song out considerably. The guitar action gets particularly frenzied during “Bullet With My Name On It.” This may not have been what Dream Syndicate fans were expecting back in the day, but that was their loss. “Bullet” is a great track, and was Precoda’s lone songwriting contribution to the record.
On the final three cuts the band went off the grid. “Medicine Show” starts out as a deceptively simple blues jam, and soon evolves into a hypnotic guitar showcase. Although The Doors never had the chops to pull off something like this, they are an obvious inspiration, as are The Velvet Underground.
“John Coltrane Stereo Blues” is the heart and soul of Medicine Show. It is the only piece credited to all four members, and was what they warmed up with every night before recording. The group threw everything into this one. Over the nine-minute duration you will hear aspects of just about everyone the band were influenced by. The Stooges, Jim Morrison, Neil Young, and Television are just a few of them.
The album winds up with “Merrittville,” a tune that starts out as a carbon copy of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land.” The piano work of guest Tom Zvoncheck really drives this desolate ballad, at least until the guitars kick in. When they do, it is for some incredibly powerful interplay between Precoda and Wynn. I would have loved to see the two of them playing this one live back then.
This CD reissue appends a live five-song EP titled This Is Not The New Dream Syndicate Album…Live! Unfortunately, it does not include “Merrittville,” but we do get some blazing guitar action during “The Medicine Show,” and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.”
Medicine Show is one of the great lost records of the '80s, and I am hopeful that this reissue might inspire former fans to give it a second chance.