In the fall of '82, I was a schmucky music collector unlucky enough to be working in a record store about to be slammed by the Xmas season juggernaut called Thriller. Then a promo of the first album by the Dream Syndicate -- on punk label Slash and hotly tipped as the swankest underground band to emerge from L.A. since Arthur Lee's Love -- turned up. I schemed to get it out the security door and into my apartment, where a hit of some particularly nice LSD stashed in my freezer awaited me.
Hearing a freshly remastered The Days of Wine and Roses now: flashback. From the sinewy tangle-jangle of chordage of the first cut, "Tell Me When It's Over," all the way to the title track's extended napalm-dropping guitar jam, the 43-minute album is monumental both in its scope and its lasting impact. We'll leave the latter impression as a given, adding this from critic Byron Coley's evocative liner notes: "Upon the album's release, the Dream Syndicate were toasted as resuscitators of forgotten string tradition."
And, as Coley also points out, a rare celebration of group chemistry. The beauty of TDOWAR is how it so artfully balances literate, melodic singer-songwriter-based pop with the visceral demands of full-on psych and punk (whose basic urges aren't that dissimilar). There's the proto-thrash talking blues of "Definitely Clean," the low-end throb 'n' fuzz of "That's What You Always Say," the Echo and the Bunnymen-meet-Velvets paroxysms and noirish lyric imagery of "Then She Remembers" (sample line: "He had teeth like a vise and a hand like a muzzle"), the overtly Dylanesque "When You Smile," and the psychedelic jazz strut of "Until Lately." Steve Wynn, Dennis Duck, Karl Precoda and Kendra Smith had chemistry and chops, their musical swagger underscored by an edgy self-confidence.
Among the reissue's eight bonus tracks are four from the group's self-titled '82 EP. While lo-fi by comparison, the debut had all the foregoing qualities plus a jittery, punk-bred vibe. An earlier "That's What You Always Say" is all manic fretboard crab-walking, while "Some Kinda Itch" is imbued with the same dreamy/Velvety brutality that marked the band's live shows. Two '81 rehearsals are also included, "embryonic" but still deftly sketched takes of "Too Little, Too Late" (with Smith on vocals) and "Definitely Clean."
Of interest: Internet newsgroups recently took Wynn to task for, one, a remastering job that was excessively bright and trebly, and, two, for the inclusion of a pair of '81 songs cut with his pre-DS band 15 Minutes. Arguments regarding the latter as an ego move are poppycock, of course. Wynn was the group's principal songwriter, and the opportunity to compare yet a third version of "That's What You Always Say" (here, dronier, with drum machine) is, from an archival-analytic standpoint, invaluable. And "Last Chance for You" gives one a glimpse at the British postpunk (Fall, Joy Division) influences that Wynn would subliminally incorporate in the Syndicate. As for sonic ruminations, well, while the reissue does boast more high frequencies than the original Slash CD (which, by contrast, has a fatter bottom end), "excessively" is a judgment call. Personally, I find it more rewarding to crank the motherfucker up than play A-B man.
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You now have the opportunity to savor the record much in the fashion that I once did: with fresh ears. Your expectations may be high, but then, so were mine in '82, doubly primed by DIY pragmatism and hippie aesthetics and believing that rock 'n' roll could set you free. The Days of Wine and Roses is precisely that: the sound of liberation. Feel it. The acid's optional.