The Record Collection: 1989 – 2

R.E.M. | Life’s Rich Pageant | I.R.S, 1986 |

The fourth studio album from R.E.M. was my first encounter with the band. I bought it on cassette in 1986, and the LP version three years later. It’s still the favorite album from a band I never stopped adoring. Characterized by a cleaner production than on their previous efforts (thanks to Don Gehman), a punchy sound while maintaining their enigmatic presence and jangly roots. And of course, it has some of the band’s greatest songs, including the killer opening trio of “Begin the Begin”, “These Days” and “Fall On Me.” I wish I still was in college, bury magnets, swallow the rapture.

The Beasts of Bourbon | The Axeman’s Jazz | Big Time 1985 |

A super supergroup from Australia, including members from Hoodoo Gurus, The Johnnys and of course The Scientists (Kim Salmon). This is their debut album, originally released down under a year before. With a mix of swamp rock, psychobilly and country blues, somewhere between The Cramps, Nick Cave and Hank Williams, this here beast was created during one particularly dark and gloomy evening in Sydney. The opening track and leadoff single, where singer Tex Perkins does a convincing take on Leon Payne’s classic murder ballad “Psycho” still remains one of the highlight on an album packed with stories about death and misery. The Beasts of Bourbon were confronting, abusive and filled with desperation and despair. This album gives you plenty of it all. Pour yourself a glass, turn the lights down low and join this band along the lost highway and into the night.

American Music Club | California | Frontier 1988 |

‘To the left, a beautiful California landscape
Dead ends in the sky
And to the right, beautiful mountains rise
High and dry
Another futile expression of bitterness
Another overwhelming sensation of uselessness’

Mark Eitzel is one of the great American storytellers and voices; deep, stoic and soulful, he fleshes out personal anguish and wry observations with an unmatched eloquent pen. American Music Club lived up to their name and incorporated many different styles into their music over the years, always gravitating around Eitzel’s magnetic presence, and on California they played it all out so extremely well. There is a barren feeling deep inside this golden landscape, where dreams meet the sea, a sense of sadness, longing and hopelessness so wonderfully conveyed on tracks like “Last Harbour”, “Western Sky”, “Laughingstock” or “Firefly”, but all conducted with elegance and beauty. Into a story not only about inner demons, or the state of California, but of America itself.

The Band of… Blacky Ranchette | Heartland | Zippo 1986 |

When Howe Gelb got the country itch, he let Giant Sand rest for a while, saddled up Blacky, teamed up with some of his finest compadres and set out on the western trails. The first Blacky LP came back in 1985, ‘Heartland’ followed a year later. Both albums are a testament to the sparkling relationship between Gelb and Rainer Ptacek, two creative geniuses and close friends until Rainer sadly passed away in 1997. Blacky pursued a more pure country sound than the Giant Sand moniker could provide, but always bumped into the usual detours that makes Howe Gelb’s music so irresistible. This is a “lost” Americana classic way before that became a hip term.

Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ | Mystery Road | Island 1989 |

Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ masterfully merged Southern indie with Southern hard rock and country, and managed to unify it all into a stirring hot cocktail under the guidance of singer and main songwriter Kevn Kinney. Their two previous albums are both wonderful, but Mystery Road shines with confidence, power and the sharpest set of tunes in their entire album catalog. The country/folk songs are particularly strong, “Ain’t It Strange,” With the People,” “Peacemaker,” and of course the wonderful “Straight to Hell” are classics in its own right and also remains a missing link between Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo and the whole Americana resurgence of the 1990s. But Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ always had the urge to rock off too, Aerosmith style (“Toy Never Played With,” “Wild Dog Moon”) and ‘Mystery Road’ gives you plenty of it all. This is an album you can drive and cry to.

Pixies | Surfer Rosa | 4AD 1988 |

This is one of my definitive favorite albums of all times, and both Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are on my Top 10 Album List of the 1980s. Pixies was brand new to me when I bought ‘Surfer Rosa’, on a warm springs day, and it became the soundtrack for the summer when I turned 17. How fortunate! I believe the combination of their super catchy songs and disturbing lyrics (“He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot”, “I got no lips, I got no tongue, where there were eyes, there’s only space”, “I’m the horny loser”) somewhat resonated to a teen life being equally carefree and confusing. Needless to say, all these songs here are classics in my book, and every time I put on the album, not as often as before I have to admit, but it’s just as rewarding as in 1989, I’m being transferred back to this time in my life. So grateful Pixies was there to guide me into adulthood. PS: On the back cover, I still see the fingerprint marks from the day I bought it. I hated the stains back then, now it’s almost like a stamp of remembrance, something that would never occur in the digital world. There’s a beauty in that as well.

The Feelies | Only Life | A&M 1988 |

Some discovered The Feelies on their 1980 debut album, and I guess that must’ve been a thrilling experience. I bought my first Feelies-album on a hunch (I believe) some time in 1989. Their legacy didn’t matter to me, it was all about the moment. In hindsight, Only Life might not be considered such a seminal album, but to a perpetual nervous teen it was mind-blowing and just the best thing ever. I was well into jangle pop at the time, but was starting to look out for something with more punch, and The Feelies served just the right mixture of restless indie charm and groovy rhythms. As a huge fan of all kinds of horror movies, I remember how the cover art appealed to me big time, imaging these five fellas standing in front of Amityville, Elm Street or whatever VHS flick I was watching at the time. I guess that is what I still find fascinating; the dreamlike, hypnotic sounds of innocence and the tempting undertows towards something darker. I never tire of The Feelies, and I’ll never stop listening to this album.

Dinosaur Jr. | Bug | SST/Blast First 1988 |

Remember the last time you heard a new album and instinctively knew it would not only blow your brains out in the moment, but also mark the beginning of a life long relationship? An album of such impact that you just had to play it over and over again, share its brilliance with anyone with the slightest of interest and memorize every word and note? Not too often these days for my part, but hopefully youngsters still do, it’s a glorious feeling. I went and saw Dinosaur Jr in this tiny club after buying Bug in the summer of 1989, holding my under-aged breath while sneaking in, squeezed in right by the speaker and witnessed a loud, loud mess of guitar insanity, the songs hardly recognizable, buried deep below endless layers of feedback and noise. My ears were ringing for weeks afterwards. Bug is also a noisy mess, but with this brilliant mixture of emotional vulnerability, slacker coolness and full on assaults that makes it such a classic. “Freak Scene” is the obvious key track, a super catchy indie anthem if there ever was any. I was not the only kid yelling out lines like these on a frequent basis, but it was like J spoke directly to me:
“Sometimes I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me fuck up will you
’cause when I need a friend it’s still you
What a mess” ‘Bug’ is a lot more thank “Freak Scene” though, “They Always Come”, Budge” and “Let it Ride” are equally addictive, and I’ve always adored hazy slow burners like “Yeah We Know” and “The Post” just as much. One of my fondest memories is tied to the sludgy, epic finale of “Don’t.” Remember how I occupied the DJ booth at our weekly youth club disco and blasted it on max volume, giggling at the horrified faces in front of me. Oh the days of joy and guitar noise.

Black Sun Ensemble | s/t | Reckless 1988 |

Much of the music from the American southwest is rooted in the dusty ground with the barren landscape as a majestic backdrop, but some went even further. I was deep into many of the bands being labeled as ‘desert rock’ at the time, but Black Sun Ensemble was something else indeed. There is an undeniable flavor of the frontier twang in their sound, but as they reached for the sky, they also discovered other horizons, including ritual music, Medieval patterns, space rock and Indian raga. This album is a collection of some of their early hard-to-get cassette releases (‘Sapphire Sky Symphony’, ‘Raga Del Sol’) and a couple of new tracks, and works as a great introduction to one of the many overlooked bands from this time and place. It is a magic carpet ride of hypnotic cosmic desert psychedelia centered round the intricate guitar work of Jesus Acedo (1962-2013), imagine a mix of John Fahey, Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar, instrumental explorations of the outer world and of the inner mind. It’s a trip alright, this is Country & Eastern at its finest.

The Leaving Trains | Transportational D. Vices | SST 1989 |

The Leaving Trains came out of the same vital Los Angeles scene that spawned likeminded artists like The Gun Club, The Flesh Eaters and The Dils. They were a wild ride in the glory days and left behind a string of great albums in the latter half of the 1980s ranging from rambling punk frenzy to introspective, self-loathing material. Transportational D. Vices leans towards the former, with its hard-hitting down-and-out tunes mostly between 1-2 minutes long (including a cool cover of Urinals’ “Black Hole”). Falling James Moreland was the only steady member in a band with a constant revolving lineup, and his keen melodic sense always shines through their ramshackle sound. Falling James is quite a story by the way, notoriously known for his crossdressing appearances, a super brief marriage with Courtney Love, name-dropped by Tom Waits (“Gun Street Girl”), and now retired from music he’s a writer for L.A. Weekly. ‘Transportational D. Vices’ is produced by Earle Mankey (the Weirdos, Runaways, Concrete Blonde, The Three O’Clock, The Long Ryders) and the album cover is a photo of Howe Gelb’s very own ’66 Barracuda. Such is the life of Falling James, packed with fame and tragedy, peculiar incidents and surrounded by cult figures, living in the gutter and looking at the stars. Just as the songs he made.

How Did They Find Themselves Here? The Dream Syndicate: Album by Album

In the late 1970s Los Angeles was a key hub for punk rock and hardcore music, spawning crucial bands like Black Flag, Germs and Circle Jerks. At the turn of the decade, just as that boom started to fade, a new generation rolled into town keeping the untamed punk spirit alive while reverberating echoes of the pre-punk era.

Eighties Los Angeles became a hotbed for pioneering alternative rock acts, leaning equally towards country and folk, in the form of cowpunk, and psychedelia, manifesting a scene known as the Paisley Underground. Man, it must have been a thrilling place! Standout bands like The Gun Club, X, Green On Red, The Rain Parade, The Long Ryders and True West are just some of the acts that planted cactus roots in the land of palms. But none were more thrilling or vital than The Dream Syndicate.

Even though they belonged to the same scene as the ones mentioned above, The Dream Syndicate didn’t sound like anyone else at the time. Originally based around Steve Wynn (guitar, vocals), Karl Precoda (guitar) Kendra Smith (bass) and Dennis Duck (drums), Syndicate was all about loud guitars and a boundless approach, creating a musical habitat equally leaning on the harrowing echoes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the intricate guitar work of Television, the drone soundscapes of The Velvet Underground and the improvisational elements of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

The band cemented their legacy early on the seminal 1982 debut, The Days of Wine and Roses, a hands-down masterpiece that exhibits everything they were capable of. Although loud, psychedelic guitar rock was not the hippest of sounds in the ’80s, but it resonated surprisingly well for a subculture that later became known as college rock, which The Dream Syndicate pioneered along with the likes of their close friends in R.E.M, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.

In 1983 The Dream Syndicate secured an opening slot for U2 on their U.S. tour, and the newfound national spotlight landed them a contract with A&M Records. Along with the record deal came a budget that allowed them to hire Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash) as producer, resulting in their much more expansive sophomore album, The Medicine Show (1984).

Being dropped from the majors due to disappointing album sales, on top of internal struggles and various line-up changes didn’t prevent two more albums to follow. After a temporary retirement, which allowed Steve Wynn and compadre Dan Stuart of Green On Red to join forces as the drunken barroom outfit Danny & Dusty, Syndicate returned with newfound energy on 1986′s Out of The Grey. Following yet another pause, they crafted the dark and dense album, Ghost Stories, produced by Elliot Mazer of Neil Young fame.

In just six years time, The Dream Syndicate had forged a unique and distinctive four-album catalog that earns them a place among the seminal guitar bands of the 1980s. They capped off the decade with Live at Raji’s, an ecstatic live album that fully captured their energetic shows, without any technical bonds and a statement most bands can dream of.

As the ’80s turned to the ’90s, the Dream Syndicate was put to rest. Steve Wynn continued on as the far most profiled artist, under his own name and in bands like Gutterball and The Baseball Project, while other members drifted in different directions. Their music maintained a strong cult following no one really expected their return.

Then, in 2012, The Dream Syndicate miraculously reunited for a Spanish music festival. Made up of Wynn, Mark Walton (bass), Dennis Duck on drums and newcomer Jason Victor on guitar, the magic was still there. The band has since played over 50 shows and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe.

In 2016 they headed into the studio to begin work on their first album in 29 years. Released on September 8 by Anti- Records, How Did I Find Myself Here? is a triumphant return for a band that never lost its spark.

We invited Steve Wynn for a look in the back mirror and guide us through their catalog while we anticipate their new album.

* * *

The Dream Syndicate: Album by Album
By Steve Wynn

The Days of Wine and Roses
(Ruby, 1982)

Where it all began – to be specific, during three consecutive midnight to 8 a.m. sessions at Quad Tech Studios in East Hollywood in September of 1982.

We tracked all of the songs on the first night. And I sang them and did a few guitar bits and pieces the second night. We mixed the whole thing on the third and we all went to our day jobs in between.

I worked as a clerk at Rhino Records so it’s not like it was the most demanding job in the world. But I do remember going in and opening the store after we finished with a cassette of the mixes in my hand.

I played it to an empty store and knew that we had done something special, that we had made an album that lived up to our loftiest ambitions and intentions

Medicine Show
(A&M, 1984)

The first record took three days. This one took five months, working almost every day during those five months, usually about 12 hours a day.

On the same 8 songs. Yes, it’s almost impossible to believe.

Chock it up to the times, the ’80s became the Era of The Producer, a time when newfound technology and those at the helm felt that they were there for much more than the mere task of capturing art.

Chock it up to the actual producer we had chosen, Sandy Pearlman (Blue Oyster Cult, The Clash), who I later found out was notorious for going way over a deadline and most certainly over budget.

Chock it up to our ambition to make something deeper, bigger and most intense than our first.

Whatever, they were very different records but they fit together in my mind and this one is quite often my favorite. It creates its own world and I really feel like there’s no other record quite like it. Oh, and some of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written.

Out of the Grey
(Big Time, 1986)

The band broke up in December. Karl and I weren’t talking. It had stopped being fun. And the newfound excesses – of chemicals, alcohol, experience, ego, fame – didn’t work in our favor.

So, that was it.

At least that was it until Mark and Dennis and I realized that we liked playing together and we invited Paul B. Cutler (45 Grave and, the producer of our first EP) to join us.

It worked. It was a blast. It was fun.

And the giddiness of everything being fun again comes through on this record, the title track being the taste of rising up, phoenix-like, from the ashes.

It’s upbeat, breezy, things not normally associated with our band.

Ghost Stories
(Enigma, 1988)

By this time Mark and Paul and Dennis and I had spent a lot of time on the road, and you can hear it on this record. I think that in some ways we put it all together on this one.

It’s dark, it’s noisy, it’s bratty but it’s also quite self-assured and not undone by production – neither too little nor too much.

It’s just us.

Credit must be given to producer Elliot Mazer (responsible for Neil Young’s Harvest, for one) who went for a live immediacy and transparent, rocking sound. It doesn’t sound dated. It sounds like us and, although we didn’t know it at the time, it was a good way to go out.

Oh, and much of it features Chris Cacavas, who had become a fifth member and still is to this day.

Live At Raji’s
(Enigma, 1989)

Paul’s guitar was stolen and we were all broke and most definitely uninsured. So we played a gig at our favorite local Hollywood hangout, Raji’s, to make enough to buy him a new one. And what the hell, we thought, let’s record it as well.

Elliot was around and had the idea to record the show direct to DAT (remember DAT, kids?). He was upstairs with his gear and recorder while we rocked out in the basement.

Man, we were ON that night – no jitters or worries about being recorded. We let it all fly. You hear this record and you hear what we did night after night on stages around the world.

When the show was done, so was the record. Performed and recorded and fully mixed all at the same time.

Some people say it’s our best record. Who am I to argue?

How Did I Find Myself Here
(Anti-, 2017)

A 29-year gap between our fourth and fifth albums. Who does that? Has there ever been a longer gap between albums in a band’s history. I don’t know. But this feels both like a continuation of our saga and something altogether brand new.

We neither wanted to ignore our past nor slavishly reproduce it.

And then we went into the studio and didn’t think about any of that. We just played.

Five days of playing in Richmond, Virginia at Montrose Studios, aided and abetted by our new guitarist Jason Victor (who had played in my solo band, the Miracle 3, since 2001). We knew from the start that it was going well and we just kept going and followed the music where it wanted to take us.

It took us someplace very special.

And that’s how we found ourselves here.

See you on the road.

– Steve Wynn, September 2017

Bjørn Hammershaug