The Dream Syndicate distinguish themselves from the legions of jambands out there with the sheer intensity and focus of the guitar duels between bandleader Steve Wynn and lead player Jason Victor – and their songs’ carefully crafted narratives. One of the band’s signature moves is to take Wynn’s tightly wound three-and-a-half-minute riff-rock gems and thrash the hell out of them.
Their new double viinyl album, The Universe Inside – streaming at Bandcamp – takes a turn in a radically different direction. It’s a suite, by far the band’s most psychedelic record: history may judge this as the fullest realization of the vision Wynn introduced on the band’s influential debut, The Days of Wine and Roses. There are element of jazz, art-rock and latin music here, but ultimately this is its own animal.
Bassist Mark Walton more or less loops a catchy, dry, trebly riff as Wynn and Victor triangulate in a spare exchange with guest Stephen McCarthy’s lingering guitar-sitar to open the album’s twenty-minute first track, The Regulator. Shards of reverb and sputters of sparks from the amps punctuate those succinct phrases amid the swirl and pulse: Chris Cacavas’ echoey electric piano becomes the icing on this space cake. With drummer Dennis Duck and percussionist Johnny Hott’s supple shuffle groove, Carlos Santana’s late 60s jams come to mind, but also Isaac Hayes’ sprawling psychedelic soul vamps – and Meddle-era Pink Floyd, and Angelo Badalamenti’s David Lynch film themes.
There’s a spoken-word vocal that concerns soothing the soul and blown fuses, both things this band know something about. Marcus Tenney’s one-man horn section wafts through the mix – some sax, some trumpet, sometimes both, frequently evoking Sonny Rollins’ work on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend. It ends as you would expect it
The groove expands, the spacerock becoming more drifty in the second track, The Longing. This tragedy occurred “Like it happened moments ago, distant across the chasm…the harder you try to fix it, eliminate, deep-six it, all that remains is the longing,” Wynn sings, pushing against the top of his register.
The three six-string guys – that’s McCarthy on six-string bass here – trade off warmly major-key Ticket to Ride phrases as Apropos Of Nothing gets underway. It’s a classic, cynical, allusively grim Wynn narrative
What were you expecting
What did you become
Apropos of nothing
Chain reaction before the fall
And just when the band have lulled you into an alterred state, they hit a crunchy, roaring What Goes On drive.
The sardonic jousting that introduces the instrumental Dusting Off the Rust – a line from The Regulator – is one of the album’s funniest moments. This one’s a gritty slinker, a trippy dichotomy of punchy riffs and swirling cascades in the same vein as the spidery Topanga Canyon Freaks, from Wynn’s iconic 2001 Here Come the Miracles album.
The record’s final cut, The Slowest Rendition rises from a web of aching bent-note cries, to a pummeling drive and then a brooding, summery haze. Elegantly animated interplay aside, it’s one of Wynn’s most haunting, death-fixated songs. “Chaos flickers in the night” on “this silent, darkening, empty beach,” his disembodied narrator bracing for what comes next as the sax winds down. It’s an apt ending from the guy who wrote John Coltrane Stereo Blues. If there’s still a reason, or a means, for music blogs to exist at the end of 2020 – let’s hope there are – you will see this high on the annual best album of the year list here