The Upshot: A remarkable return to form and the first studio material since 1989, the record sizzles with a raw immediacy as befits the band’s in-your-face arrangements. Plus a powerhouse live recording, from 1988, in a super-duper limited edition package. (Watch a live concert from October of this year following the review.)
BY FRED MILLS
This just might turn out to be The Year Of The Dream Syndicate, what with their first new studio album since 1989, How Did I Find Myself Here?, released, along with a limited edition colored vinyl re-release, The Complete Live at Raji’s (complete with bonus tracks), a 1988 concert which originally appeared in 1989 as Live at Raji’s around the time the group was winding down its original 1981-89 run. The Dream Syndicate actually resurfaced in 2012— guitarist/vocalist Steve Wynn (who has had a wildly prolific post-D.S. career, including numerous solo albums as well as Gutterball and The Baseball Project, not to mention—most recently—his band the Miracle Three), original drummer Dennis Duck, latterday bassist Mark Walton, and guitarist Jason Victor (on loan from the Miracle Three).
Backtracking a bit, and by way of a personal note, one steamy summer evening in ’86, September 24 to be precise, the Dream Syndicate loaded in at Charlotte, NC, punk/indie venue the Milestone Club. Wynn, along with guitarist Paul B. Cutler (who’d produced the band’s debut EP and eventually joined the band, replacing original guitarist Karl Precoda), Walton, and Duck, proceeded to lay waste to the minds of a packed crowd. Easing into their set with a kind of jazzy vamp along with Wynn’s admonition that they’d been told to keep the volume down—it was a weeknight, and the club owner was nervous in the wake of some recent noise complaints and the subsequent queries from the police—the band then visibly yanked the knobs on their guitars and crashed full-decibels-tilt into D.S. mainstay “Until Lately,” emitting gale force sonic winds and prompting an angry exit from the music room by the club owner. The rest of the show was no less exhilarating, from such classics as “The Medicine Show” and “The Days of Wine and Roses” to tracks from the recently-released Out of the Grey album to wild covers of Alice Cooper’s “Ballad of Dwight Frye” and War’s “Spill the Wine.” (Incidentally, you can listen to the show at Archive.org—the tracks posted online are taken from the tape I recorded that night.)
“Until Lately” is also a centerpiece of The Complete Live at Raji’s, a powerhouse set showcasing the band at the height of its latterday powers. The Cutler lineup was touring a few months prior to the release of what would be their last studio album, Ghost Stories, although with performances this incendiary you’d never think the group was verging on its last legs—in addition to that song, standouts include an unhinged “John Coltrane Stereo Blues,” The Medicine Show noir-rock gem “Burn,” and a jittery cover of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” that opened the January 31, 1988, show at legendary L.A. club Raji’s.
Live at Raji’s being the ’89 CD release, The Complete Live at Raji’s originally appeared as an expanded reissue on CD in 2004, but this new reissue marks the first time it’s ever been on vinyl. As with the 2004 disc, the project was overseen by veteran D.S. archivist Pat Thomas, who was responsible for unearthing four tracks that were not on the ’89 iteration; he also contributes informative liner notes in which he discusses the provenance of the Raji’s tapes as well as correcting some errors that had appeared in the earlier album credits. Here in 2017, devoted Dream Syndicate fans also get: colored vinyl, a thick-stock Stoughton “tip-on” gatefold sleeve, and a numbered edition. All thanks to the Run Out Groove label for going the extra mile with their release; ROG has fans vote on which will be the next title the company will produce, and Raji’s was a runaway winner as a vote-getter. Give the people what they want, eh?
Fast-forward to the 2012 Dream Syndicate shows. This was not necessarily a nostalgia trip like, say, the Pixies or Pavement, bands that reunited for tours and, sometimes, new recordings when they realized they could in fact cash in on fans’ nostalgia. Although the D.S. sometimes did complete renderings of classic albums The Days of Wine and Roses (from 1982) and 1984’s The Medicine Show in concert, their tours were more intermittent as individual schedules—and, more important—inspiration dictated. Apparently that inspiration increased as more time elapsed, for by the tail end of 2015 they were working on new material.
The new How Did I Find Myself Here?, then, is the culmination of many things, of which one of those things is clearly not recapturing/reconjuring old glories—they’re extending and elaborating upon an already estimable legacy that was already secure in the minds of fans and critics. With longtime peer Chris Cacavas (Green On Red) on board as co-producer and session keyboardist, the group serves up a tough-as-nails set, part-psychedelia and part-punk and 100 percent heavy-ass guitar rock.
Indeed, the record sizzles with a raw immediacy as befits its in-your-face arrangements. And everyone sounds utterly energized here, from the jetstream convulsions of the feedback-laden “The Circle” to the atmospheric, Bowie-esque (think “Heroes”) “Glide” to the manic, choppy riffage of “Out of My Head.” They also lob a few Easter eggs in the direction of fans, too, notably the throbbing bass intro to dissonant garage raver “80 West” which is clearly intended to recall the first album’s “That’s What You Always Say.” For “Kendra’s Dream” they even bring back original bassist Kendra Smith to handle lead vocals. And the 11-minute title track, a spooky, bluesy, ultimately swaggering slice of swamp-psych conjures D.S. epics of yore, particularly the extended concert extrapolations for which the band is known for. (On the tune, Cacavas brings some terrific Ray Manzarek-like electric piano to the table, additionally giving the tune a classic Doors vibe in spots.)
Consumer Note: The album comes digitally and on CD and is also pressed on 180-gm. vinyl (black in the U.S., turquoise or red in Europe). Fans who signed up via the group’s PledgeMusic campaign could avail themselves of numerous donation tiers, including the obligatory album/teeshirt bundles, a vinyl copy signed by all four members and accompanied by a D.S. turntable mat and a booklet of Steve Wynn’s ‘80s-era lyrics, and, at the $1,500 level, a personal DJ set or house party performance by Wynn—or even a full band house party set for anyone with $15,000 to burn. If you pledged you also got some nice freebies in the form of previously unreleased live material. I’d call that giving the people what they want.
DOWNLOAD: “How Did I Find Myself Here?”, “80 West,” “Out of My Head”
Below, watch the band’s October 20, 2017, concert at the Crossroads Festival in Germany