The Dream Syndicate – Medicine Show (expanded reissue)

The Dream Syndicate - Medicine Show

With 1982’s The Days Of Wine And Roses forever being the defining post-punk classic in Steve Wynn’s early career leading The Dream Syndicate, it’s perhaps been inevitable that its misunderstood sophomore sequel – 1984’s Medicine Show – has suffered unfairly in comparison and from its prolonged exclusion from the CD world.  Finally back in print – and now augmented with the equally rare This Is Not The New Dream Syndicate Album… Live! EP from the same year – the album is ripe for reappraisal.

Whilst the contrast with the band’s taut urban-gritted debut is indeed striking, ultimately Medicine Show still captures the same core catalytic chemistry of Wynn’s adenoidal tones and Karl Precoda’s string-bending driving proceedings.  The record in hindsight, feels like a strung-out, weathered and torn extension of The Days Of Wine And Roses; transplanting Wynn’s psychodramas out of inner-city claustrophobia and into open road rage.  Perhaps also responding to the extra infusion of Tom Zvoncheck’s barroom piano strutting and Dylanesque organ-playing (along with the replacement of bassist Kendra Smith with the more forthright Dave Provost) the Wynn/Precoda dynamic on the LP is recalibrated with Crazy Horse-meets-Green On Red swagger and riffing, for nine storytelling pieces peppered with violence, vengeance and vigour.

Very much an album of two old-school sides, the first half of Medicine Show holds shorter more hook-snagging cuts, with the second stretching into more elasticated epics. Hence the opening trio of “Still Holding On To You,” “Daddy’s Girl” and “Burn” are the long-player’s most insistently melodic entries, with a lighter-hearted exuberance amplified by soaring male backing vocals.  Things take a darker yet still fairly concise turn with the sneering twosome of “Armed With An Empty Gun” and “Bullet With My Name On It” where the album makes a brutish transition to its lengthy lysergic three-song coda.  From there the title-track sprawls itself across six minutes, flirting with the atmospheric yet unhinged malevolence of The Gun Club’s Miami en route to the stand-out live favourite “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.”  Within the latter’s searing eight plus minutes, Wynn and Precoda’s Gang Of Four via Neil Young guitars tangle mesmerizingly around each other, whilst Provost and drummer Dennis Duck sustain a meticulously steady near-Krautrock rhythm bed throughout.  By the time “Merritville” concludes the main event, the urgency dissipates into battle worn desolation that leaves the album with an overwhelming sense of oppressiveness, which might explain why it never previously received the devotion of its more accessible siblings in The Dream Syndicate catalogue.

Apart from some occasionally dated – but thankfully not glossy – production values, Medicine Show stands up as another respectable rough diamond from the decade most musicologists would rather forget.  The strength of the raw Medicine Show material is further highlighted in the appended live EP which – aside from a stunning piano-heavy transposition of “Tell Me When It’s Over” from The Days Of Wine And Roses – takes four tracks from the LP for sharper and less murky rides.  Naturally, “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” is blistering whatever the environment but “Armed With An Empty Gun” and “Bullet With My Name On It” are much more convincing than their studio incarnations, thanks largely to Zvoncheck’s sterling keyboard work.  “The Medicine Show” is also more riveting, ravaging and redemptive than its off-stage original.

All in all, this a thoroughly essential and patience-rewarding restoration package, that makes up for too many years of master tapes gathering dust in record company vaults and innumerable bitter eBay bidding wars.

Water Records