In the early 80’s, in rock’s less-certain days before shoegazing, grunge, and Pavement, there was a whole bevy of bands getting started that were not necessarily so different from “punk” and “post-punk” rock, but were often more influenced by groups like The Velvet Underground, The Byrds, and Big Star. R.E.M. was certainly one of them, and their Murmur is one of the masterpieces of that period, but there were many, many other groups that have mostly been forgotten by all but record collectors and obsessives. There was a subtle magic to bands like The Soft Boys, Television Personalities, The Mekons, The Feelies, and The (sadly almost obscure) Dream Syndicate.
The Dream Syndicate’s early albums were rather roughly produced, and that was a part of their charm. By the time they arrived at Ghost Stories, in 1988, that was basically all said and done. For Out of the Grey and Ghost Stories, The Syndicate brought in booming drums and swept aside most of that tinny, ragged-sounding aesthetic of their earlier albums. They became much more straightforward and poppy, superficially conventional. This same year, The Feelies did something similar for Only Life, another cult album of mine. By 1989, Steve Wynn’s Syndicate was done.
It’s ultimately irrelevant as to what motivated this shift in their sound that occurred towards the end of the band’s journey. The simple truth is that Live At Raji’s, the live album that the Syndicate recorded before the release of Ghost Stories and then released in 1989, saw them in this new mode, and Live at Raji’s is frankly one of the greatest live albums ever released by a rock band. The powerpop Dream Syndicate was great, anthemic American rock music way past the level of later R.E.M., maybe even past much of Bruce Springsteen’s work. Sincere, morose songwriting wed perfectly to straightforward, chiming, burning guitars on “Whatever You Please”, “I Have Faith”, and “Loving the Sinner, Hating the Sin”…then a quotation from T.S. Eliot on “My Old Haunts”…and then hard-hitting blues on “Weathered and Torn”, “This Side I’ll Never Show”, and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”. This is so-called “indie” rock that’s robust, intelligent, and proud. I suppose that I ought to like Days of Wine and Roses best, but I cannot help it– I love this record and I’ll always return to it more than anything else by The Dream Syndicate.
Here is some great news for my Portland readers: The Dream Syndicate has recently reformed! They will be appearing this Friday the 29th at the Doug Fir Lounge. Steve Wynn has hinted that he will be playing more songs from Ghost Stories and Out of the Grey, songs that The Dream Syndicate did not get many opportunities to play before they broke up. Act quick before the show sells out, and I’ll see you then.