continued from part 1…
Producer Sandy Pearlman gave The Dream Syndicate‘s 1984 album The Medicine Show album a bright, clear sound that has worn well; it’s not firmly rooted in a particular era sonically. “Sandy had a lot to do with helping to shape what we were doing,” leader Steve Wynn says. “Actually Sandy was very involved in the arrangements. He helped us find new ways to play our songs.” Wynn cites the example of “Merrittville,” a song the band had been playing “faster and faster, with no apparent reason.” Pearlman got the band to slow it down, digging into the meaning of the song. In the end, Wynn believes that Pearlman’s goal — successfully achieved, Wynn notes — was to “document where we were” musically.
And while this writer doesn’t find the sound of The Medicine Show
to be at all dated, Wynn does, if only a little bit. “Since that time, I have been a little bit leery of following musically what is happening at the moment” lest he create something that is dated by that moment. He observes that “If you’re on the cutting edge of a moment, you’re going to be dated by that moment.” In his own work, Wynn strives to be true to his “emotion at the moment, as opposed to the sound of the moment.”
The Medicine Show has a strong emphasis on keyboard sounds, especially considering the group’s reputation as a guitar band. Auxiliary player Tommy Zvoncheck‘s piano and organ — which were overdubbed after the band finished their sessions — are mixed prominently throughout the album. And the 1984 EP This is Not the New Dream Syndicate Album…Live! (appended to the new CD as a bonus) finds Zvoncheck’s keys even more forward in the mix. “It was very exciting for the band — to me, for sure — when we heard him play those songs,” Wynn recalls. “We were digging what we had [from the basic sessions], but when we heard what he did, it just took the music to a different place.”
Wynn admits that the feel of what he considers the songs at the heart of The Medicine Show — “Burn,” “Bullet With My Name On It” and “Merrittville” — are “epic, big, Cinemascope type songs” and that Zvoncheck’s keys were just what those songs needed to “take them to that complete, wide-screen level.”
The live EP appended to the new disc opens with a track originally on the first album. But here “Tell Me When It’s Over” is built around Zvoncheck’s piano (especially the long intro) and the result is a feel eerily similar to the Hunter/Wagner “Intro” track on Lou Reed’s Rock’n’Roll Animal. Oddly, at the time of its original release, the usually spot-on Trouser Press Record Guide called the EP “a dismal document.” I wonder aloud to Wynn what the hell they were listening to.
“I’m not sure which hurts worse,” Wynn muses. “When the critics get it wrong, and you’re frustrated that they missed the point, or when they get it so right, and you feel you’ve been cut to the bone.” He again mentions how the context of the time affects the perception of a work, and admits that the album and EP were “an anomaly compared to what we did before or since. But,” he says with a chuckle, that big ‘arena rock’ and dramatic sound is what we wanted to do at the time. And I think it’s pretty good. Far from dismal.”
With some hesitation, I mention that the album’s sweeping narrative feel reminds me of the work of two other artists. I’m not at all sure how Wynn will react to the comparisons, but I cite the similarities in his approach to, first, the style of Tom Verlaine and Television. “Certainly,” Wynn says. “There’s no understating the influence of Marquee Moon on everything that I do.”
Then, I carefully, diplomatically mention…Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. In particular I sensed a musical kinship between Wynn’s songwriting (and arrangement) and the sort of feel Knopfler brought to Dire Straits LPs Making Movies (1980) and Love Over Gold (1982). I note that Knopfler seemed to be shooting for a film-treatment-in-four-minutes style, trying to push the limits of rock songwriting.
I’m pretty well shocked when Wynn concurs. “It’s funny that you mention that. I don’t think I’ve told anyone this before, but at the time we made The Medicine Show, the Dire Straits record Making Movies was one of my favorite records. It couldn’t be less hip to say that now, and even less so then. But I thought that it was beautiful, evocative. That record did something that all of my favorite records do: it created its own world, and invited you in. It took you on a trip somewhere else. Now, maybe it’s not the same trip you’d go on with a John Coltrane record, but it took you to a definite place. A very romantic place.” Wynn pauses, then adds: “And I think that there was that influence on The Medicine Show. But no one’s ever pointed that out before.”
To these ears, the track “The Medicine Show” is almost a blues, and it’s not too difficult to imagine the song as performed by a Howlin’ Wolf or a Muddy Waters. Asked if he aims for a particular style when he’s writing certain songs, Wynn is wryly candid. “Especially with my earlier songs, I could tell you — if I wanted to — who I was ripping off in each song.” He goes on to say that “hopefully, as the song develops, it takes you somewhere else.” Wynn says that the song “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” began as “a free-form jam. But it was influenced by ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ by Television. The song started as a riff, and it was a Television riff. But where it went — night after night in the studio — is someplace else.” Wynn says that the track — which he still performs — continues to evolve, and that what we hear on The Medicine Show version is simply “where it was in December 1983.”
When Wynn uses the phrase “night after night,” he’s referring to producer Sandy Pearlman’s modus operandi for The Medicine Show sessions. He insisted the band run through the songs many, many times before committing them to tape. “Sandy has always had repetition as part of his production,” Wynn reveals. “He was looking for something that would blow his mind, all the time. And when we’d get in the studio,” Wynn laughs, “he’d have us do it over and over again until he found it. And in a way, it wore us down. It was a little like the Stockholm Syndrome: you eventually break down your hostage until they’re willing to do whatever you say. And,” he adds, “it was a good thing.”
Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.