Rock music, as we’ve come to appreciate it here in the 21st century, is defined by the guitar. The backbeat remains vital, but the guitar is the genre’s foundational instrument. And there are few records that display the power of the guitar as both a sonic force and a songwriting tool better than The Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses. Originally released in 1982, the debut full-length by the Los Angeles quartet is as pure an example of six-string-driven rock as one could hope for. It is also as perfect a distillisation of what a guitar rock band—not an individual guitar hero or, ugh, axe-man, mind you, but an ensemble—is capable of. As a single artistic statement, it stands alongside a few others at the pinnacle of what emerged from the nascent American indie underground of the 1980s.
Hitting at a time when new wave, with its attendant synthesizers, was making the guitar appear retro and almost quaint, and the emerging hair metal scene was in the process of reducing it to a prop as much as a musical instrument, Wine and Roses is all the more a revelation. In fact, The Dream Syndicate stood somewhat askance from much of what was happening musically in the early 1980s, mainstream or otherwise. First-wave punk was wrapping up by this point, and while the band had plenty of energy and heart, they weren’t about to get lumped in with hardcore. They certainly weren’t dark or brooding enough to be goth, although “Halloween” may have been. And though considered one of the flagship units of the vaguely defined Paisley Underground scene, The Dream Syndicate’s mix of ragged glory Youngisms, Television-inspired guitar interplay, and a touch of the NYC avant-garde (they are called The Dream Syndicate after all) was unlike anything produced during that brief flash of retro-jangle. The influence of Neil Young on the band and the album can’t be overstated, and the strum and clang of the Velvet Underground, to say nothing of Lou Reed’s deadpan street-poet delivery, isn’t difficult to locate either. But to this day, the album sounds far too evergreen to fit into any one scene or under one umbrella of influence. It’s the kind of record bands hope to make when they boldly attempt to sound “unlike anyone else.” Almost every one of them fails at this, and it’s doubtful that The Dream Syndicate was even attempting such a thing, yet they triumphed.
The quartet is perhaps best known today as an early vehicle for singer-guitarist-songwriter Steve Wynn, and his talents as a songwriter are at the heart of this record. Wynn writes for the guitar, exploring all of its compositional possibilities, while also allowing lead guitarist Karl Precoda to play rock & roll Jackson Pollock, giving him enough room to splatter his leads all over the song canvases that Wynn offers him. Yet for all of the guitar talk here, none of it would work the way it does without the rhythm section of Kendra Smith (bass) and Dennis Duck (drums), who provide the solid foundation that such six-string interplay necessitates. Add to all of this the production work of Flesheaters frontman Chris D. (who released the original version of The Days of Wine and Roses on his Slash subsidiary, Ruby Records, and whose own band’s records sound remarkably vital more than 30 years on) and you have an overlooked and under-appreciated stone cold classic.
It’s one of indie rock’s great mysteries that this album drifts in and out of print so often. It’s spoken of with such reverence, yet it remains oddly outside of the Our Band Could Be Your Life canon. One could blame it on the Syndicate never really repeating the majesty of Wine and Roses. Or maybe they just seemed too ordinary, as indie rock really doesn’t have a better average Joe than Steve Wynn. Then again what could be more mythical than a band whose bass player would leave to form Opal and then vanish before that outfit hit pay dirt as Mazzy Star? Sure, they’re not the Velvet Underground, but there’s a lot of history between those grooves—the kind that should elevate them beyond the obscure and be intriguing to a whole new generation of listeners.
The previous reissue of Wine and Roses, done by Rhino in the early 2000s, contained the band’s entire debut EP, Down There. It’s unfortunate that this Omnivore release couldn’t be amended with that essential piece to the puzzle, but there are still a number of fascinating unreleased bonus cuts here, including an alternate version of “Armed with an Empty Gun” (a song on the band’s sophomore LP Medicine Show), featuring the soon-to-depart Kendra Smith on bass.
In the end, The Days of Wine and Roses is an anomaly. It’s an album that looks to the past for inspiration, but is neither retro nor particularly well-suited for the era in which it was released. It’s a record written by an artist, in Wynn, who’s relied on a rather unassuming, mild-manner persona over his lengthy career, yet it’s filled with dynamic full-band interplay built on the individual personalities of all four members. In many ways, it’s nothing more than a simple rock record: two guitars, drums, bass, vocals. But it’s also filled with bursts of arty noise and odd segues from tight roots inspired tunesmithery to lengthy jams. On the surface The Days of Wine and Roses seems like it should fit neatly into one of the many slots we’ve craved out for understanding the history of American underground rock, but it just doesn’t work, and that’s precisely what makes it so special.