In 1982, the Dream Syndicate seemed to come out of nowhere (actually Davis, CA, but close enough) to become the most talked about band in underground rock with their debut album The Days of Wine and Roses, recorded for the tiny but prestigious Ruby Records label when the group was all of nine months old. After waves of positive press, A&M Records signed the Dream Syndicate and they went into the studio with producer Sandy Pearlman, who spent five months in the studio guiding the band through their second LP. Given their sudden rise to success, the Dream Syndicate probably would have dealt with a certain amount of critical backlash no matter how their sophomore effort turned out, but Medicine Show was greeted with openly hostile reviews, largely because it sounded practically nothing like the album that sent tongues wagging two years earlier. Where The Days of Wine and Roses was a raw but passionate fusion of Highway 61-era Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground at their most primal, Medicine Show sounded big and polished, but also dusty and weathered, with the terse, nose-thumbing lyrics of the debut replaced with dark, complex narratives full of bad luck and bad blood backed with booming drums and roaring guitars that were significantly more rockist than what Steve Wynn and Karl Precoda brought to their earlier recordings. Viewed in the context of Wynn's career, Medicine Show marks the spot where the lyrical themes and musical approach of his later work would first come into focus, but it still doesn't bear much resemblance to what the Dream Syndicate would create on their subsequent albums in its grand, doomy tone and obsessive but curiously unobtrusive production style. Medicine Show isn't a grand failure as its initial detractors claimed, but it isn't the triumph some revisionist fans imagine it to be, either; there are a few great songs scattered throughout (especially "Merrittville" and "Armed with an Empty Gun"), and once it works its way in, the 8:48 of "John Coltrane Stereo Blues" is as potent a guitar workout as anything this band would ever release. But in most respects, this finds Wynn and his bandmates reaching for something they couldn't quite grasp, and Tom Zvoncheck's keyboards, for all their drama, never really find their way into the music. Lots of bands let loose with a major-label budget for the first time have made lavish records that didn't quite work, but unlike most of them, Medicine Show doesn't sound like a grandiose waste of money. Instead, it's a widescreen guitar spectacle with the soul of a Jim Thompson paperback, and if it doesn't always work, enough of it does to make it worthy of serious reappraisal.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming