Album Review: The Days of Wine and Roses
by Jeff Burger
No one seems to know who first uttered that famous line about how the Velvet Underground’s debut album sold only a few thousand copies but all to people who wound up starting bands. What is clear is that the statement contains at least a grain of truth. The Velvets have influenced countless rock acts, from David Bowie to R.E.M.; and for more than a few of them, “influenced” would be putting it mildly. I’m thinking of groups like Television and Galaxie 500 and especially of the Dream Syndicate, an alt-rock outfit that played a key role in California’s so-called Paisley Underground movement in the 1980s.
Just listen to 1982’s The Days of Wine and Roses, that group’s first full-length album, which has recently been remastered and reissued with bonus tracks. “Then She Remembers,” for example, sounds redolent of the Velvets’ “Here She Comes Now” and could easily be mistaken for an outtake from that group’s Live at the Gymnasium or White Light/White Heat. “When You Smile,” meanwhile, employs a heavy dose of Velvets-style guitar feedback and borrows a line from Lou Reed’s “Heroin” about being “born a thousand years ago.” While Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn handles most of the vocals, moreover, the band even feature a female singer on one track (bass player Kendra Smith on “Too Little, Too Late”) who sounds more than a bit like the Velvets’ Nico.
But even the most imitative moments here are hard to resist. On The Days of Wine and Roses, moreover, the sincerest form of flattery often evolves into something original and noteworthy. “Definitely Clean,” for instance, is as hypnotic as anything Talking Heads ever delivered and “Halloween,” the best track, combines a cryptic yet indelible lyric with a propulsive beat, ringing guitars and a captivating, sinister vocal.
By most accounts, the group went downhill after The Days of Wine and Roses, which they recorded in two days for a small label, soon after they’d formed. Album number two — a bigger-budget, bigger-label affair called Medicine Show that the outfit spent many months recording — represented a bid for mainstream appeal but garnered lukewarm reviews and sales. It was largely downhill from there, and the Dream Syndicate disbanded in 1989. (They reunited in 2012, however.)
The six bonus tracks here — all previously unreleased rehearsal tapes — suggest what might have happened if the group had followed a different course. These songs, including two that later turned up in different versions on Medicine Show, are rougher than the Days of Wine and Roses material but also more interesting than what the band released later. They offer further evidence that, in their prime, the Dream Syndicate came loaded with both power and promise.
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. His website, ByJeffBurger.com, contains four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary.