By Eleni P. Austin
“I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve, in case the spark recedes.” That’s the Dream Syndicate hedging their bets on How Did I Find Myself Here? their first album in 28 years.
Dream Syndicate front man Steve Wynn grew up in Los Angeles and started playing guitar at age nine. By the time he graduated high school he had already cycled through a series of bands. Attending college at UC Davis he played the Suspects, which included lead singer Kendra Smith
Returning to L.A. to continue post-graduate studies at UCLA, Wynn got a job at Rhino Records, and he played in a couple of local bands before starting his own. Recruiting Kendra Smith for bass duties, the line-up was made complete with the additions of drummer Dennis Duck and guitarist Karl Precoda. They named their four-piece The Dream Syndicate, a nod to an early ‘60s Avant Garde collective that included John Cale.
The year was 1981 and Los Angeles was experiencing a musical renaissance. Although Punk Rock was invented in the bowels of New York and exploded in Great Britain, it flourished in the City Of Angels. Perhaps the potent combo of smog and sunshine added an invigorating blast of vitamin D.
The D.I.Y. ethos was in full effect, and while some bands embraced the primitive cool of Punk, others took that template and added disparate colors and textures that incorporated Blues, Country, Rockabilly, Jazz and R&B. The music scene became as sprawling as the city itself.
The Dream Syndicate began gigging around town and found kindred spirits in bands like the Three O’ Clock, Bangles Green-On-Red and Rain Parade. While those bands were influenced by ‘60s Garage Rock and Psychedelic sounds of the Byrds, Love and the Merry-Go-Round, The Dream Syndicate drew inspiration from darker, more subterranean sources like Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Television and Neil Young’s epic collaborations with Crazy Horse.
Michael Querico of the Three O’ Clock characterized the bands’ collective style as the Paisley Underground and the appellation stuck. The Dream Syndicate recorded and self-released Down There, a four song EP that had the critics buzzing. Pretty soon they were signed to L.A.’s preeminent indie label Slash.
Slash began life as a fanzine/magazine that documented the city’s burgeoning Punk scene. Home to seminal bands like X, the Germs, the Flesh Eaters and the Blasters, they were one of the first labels to partner with a major, (Warner Bros.) to handle distribution. Flesh Eater front-man Chris Desjardins had started as a writer for Slash magazine and as their A&R rep, he signed The Dream Syndicate. It seemed wholly appropriate that he produce their full-length debut.
That album, The Days Of Wine And Roses arrived in late 1982, and it was a revelation; pairing tough, literate lyrics with instrumentation that wasn’t afraid to skronk, squeal and feedback. Their guitar-driven squall paid homage to heroes like Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine, but it also rather clearly forged its own path. In turn, the record ended up influencing the next wave (Pixies, Nirvana and American Music Club) as well as recent bands like Parquet Courts, Ought and Nap Eyes.
The band had a mercurial seven year run. Unfortunately, Kendra Smith ditched the band not long after the release of Days… teaming with ex-Rain Parade visionary Dave Roback. Despite intra-band tensions, Karl Precoda managed to hang on. He stuck around for their second long-player, Medicine Show (which received mixed reviews and was considered a disappointment), and an EP, This Is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album… before moving on.
Steve Wynn and Dennis Duck rebounded with guitarist Paul B. Cutler and bassist Mark Walton. They released two more studio records, 1986’s Out Of The Grey and 1988’s Ghost Stories. Critics and fans reacted positively to both.
Even though it was recorded before Ghost Stories, their final epitaph was Live At Raji’s. It was recorded at the seedy Hollywood Punk Rock dive in 1988. The venue was originally home to the Hollywood U.S.O. In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s it became Greektown, the best Greek restaurant in Los Angeles (and coincidently, the place where this writer bussed tables for a dollar a day, at the instruction of her Mother, who owned the joint).
Steve Wynn began a prolific solo career and has released 10 solo albums since 1990 He recorded three albums as Steve Wynn And The Miracle Three and made time to collaborate On side projects like Gutterball and the Baseball Project. Dennis Duck reformed his pre-Dream Syndicate band, Human Hands, while Mark Walton joined the the beloved L.A./New Orleans sorta super group, Continental Drifters.
In 2012 Steve Wynn was asked to perform at a music festival in Spain. Members of Miracle 3 and Baseball Project were unavailable, so he floated the idea of a Dream Syndicate reunion. Karl Precoda had no interest, having found a modicum success fronting the Virginia based band, Last Days Of May.
Meanwhile, Kendra Smith had made two albums with Dave Roback as Opal, and recorded a solo effort in 1995 before abandoning the music business completely. She moved to a cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water. So Mark Walton returned for bass duties, and Miracle 3 guitarist Jason Victor stepped in on guitar.
Buoyed by the success of the show, the revamped Dream Syndicate slowly began adding more concert dates, the reception from critics and long-time fans was encouraging. Once they felt completely confident they headed into the studio. They enlisted old compadre and Green-On-Red founder Chris Cacavas to co-produce and add keys. Now, almost 35 years after the release of The Days Of Wine And Roses, the band is back with their new album, How Did I Find Myself Here?
This eight-song set crackles to life on the opening track, “Filter Me Through You;” a blast of droning guitar and spooky keys envelope rumbling bass lines and a chuggy-druggy rhythm. Wynn’s laconic delivery belies obsessive lyrics like “If you go away or anywhere I can’t stay, slice myself thin so I can live beneath your skin/Lost in the zone, surrounded and alone, filter me through you.” Guitars churn and snarl on the instrumental break, increasing the menacing tone. Somewhere in the fictional landscape of this song, a girl files a restraining order.
Steve Wynn has stated that the songs on this album are meant to revisit the disenfranchised characters that populated The Days Of Wine And Roses. That is never more evident than on “80 West” “Like Mary” and “Out Of My Head.”
On “80 West,” prowling bass lines give way to shards of rapid-fire rhythm guitar and reverb-drenched lead riffs that strafe and Ping atop a tensile beat. Lyrics like “Hand clutched rigid on a steering wheel, whiskey underneath the seat carefully concealed/Odometer has turned over 3 times, but I only gotta make it across the county line,” sketch out a phantasmagoric road trip that feels vaguely homicidal. It’s vivid enough to conjure up the imagery of a David Lynch film. The instrumentation walks a tightrope between meticulous restraint and brutish intensity.
“Like Mary” unspools like classic ‘40s Film Noir. Feral power chords ride roughshod over search-and-destroy bass lines and a clattery rhythm. The narrative is dense and intricate, as a woman flees her obligations; “She had pictures of her children, she remembered all of their names/She knew it was much better for them now, but it hurt just the same.” Spectral keys lattice over guitars adding a smoky patina.
Squally guitars, bludgeoning bass and a pile-driving beat can’t extinguish the stench of desperation that cloaks “Out Of My Head.” This isn’t that good kind of goin’ out of your head (“day and night, night and Day over you”), this involves feeling “Cornered, alone, beaten down and confused/Slaughtered and tripped out.” As the velocity increases, guitars shapeshift from a cataclysmic caterwaul to modal maelstrom in just over four minutes,skidding to a stop with a fresh assault of feedback.
Although Wynn and Duck are old enough to enjoy the perks of an AARP membership, they reaffirm their Punk Rock cred on two tracks, “Glide” and “The Circle.” The bare bones melody of the former is cocooned by wall of gnarled, knotty guitar, serpentine bass and a rock steady beat. The lyrics simultaneously take a swipe at the record industry and request that critics and longtime fans be patient with this new-ish incarnation of the band; “At the place where I’m hanging now: corruptible, destructible, capable of breaking or being broken/I may not be ready for what you’ve got to give, tethered by reality for so many years, I’m flying high and not ready to touch the ground.”
On The latter, tentative lyrics are juxtaposed with fractious and frenetic instrumentation. The calibrated chaos is powered by a locomotive beat, blitzkrieg bass and buzzy, mind-bending guitar notes
The title track serves as the album’s penultimate song. The instrumentation kicks in to gear as if already in progress. Sputtery beats provide a Jazz-tastic foundation that simply swings. Psychedelic keys swirl and eddy. Popping bass lines bring the Funk and skitter guitars bring the noise.
Almost four minutes elapse before Steve Wynn adds his vocals to the cyclonic mix. Cryptic lyrics like “Tripped up by my own game, so I put my finger to the flame, how did I find myself here?” allude to the demise and resurrection of the Dream Syndicate. The Moog-y keys on the break temporarily veer into lounge-y “Riders On The Storm” territory. Luckily, grindy, quivery guitars get the song back on track.
Following that musical bacchanal, the closing track feels like a satisfying, post coital cigarette. Shimmery, slightly soporific and sepulchral, “Kendra’s Dream” features the almost magical reappearance of original bassist Kendra Smith. Not only did she co-write the song, she adds a spoken word interlude. Quietly apropos, it serves as a sort of homecoming.
How Did I Find Myself Here? comes close to capturing the dark magic of The Days Of Wine And Roses. Even more than Medicine Show, it picks up where their pioneering debut left off. Even 35 years later, Dream Syndicate still feels ahead of the curve.