By DAN MACINTOSH
Back in 1984, The Dream Syndicate recorded a song called “John Coltrane Stereo Blues.” Now, in 2020, this pivotal Los Angeles-originated band has recorded an album, The Universe Inside, that kicks off with a Coltrane-worthy improvisational epic titled “The Regulator.” It’s an extended jam, with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to its instrumentation.
Within it, one hears saxophone, electric keyboard, The Long Ryders’ Stephen McCarthy on electric sitar and harmonica. At over twenty minutes long, it’s a throwback to those early FM radio days, and an era when stoned DJs laid extended groove tracks on us late into the night. It’s one truly cool aural trip.
“The Regulator” is the centerpiece, and opening salvo, of a five-song (only) album. Nothing on this release clocks in at less than seven-minutes, though, so don’t think the song count makes the group stingy. If you’re one of those, ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’ sorts, maybe this album isn’t meant for you. However, if you’re the headphone music (not earbud!) kind, The Universe Inside is filled with plenty of beautiful mental space travel music.
Vocalist Steve Wynn is a distinctive, sometimes Dylan-esque singer, and usually stands out conspicuously on The Dream Syndicate tracks. Not so much here, though, because his vocals are oftentimes buried deep in the mix. His voice struggles (intentionally, though) at times just to be heard above the busy sonic fray. It’s intended to be one aural element among many.
The Dream Syndicate was an essential player in Los Angeles’ historic 80s Paisley Underground movement, which also included far trippier Rain Parade and helped give birth to The Bangles. The Dream Syndicate, though, was just as much a story-song band, as it was a paisley proponent act at the time, which is why the group rightfully opened for R.E.M. the first time I saw the group live.
Ironically, though, The Universe Inside just may be The Dream Syndicate’s most psychedelic album to date. All these years later, these veteran musicians have kind of out-psychedelic-d their former movement colleagues. The way “Apropos Of Nothing” just breaks into a surging jam toward its over nine-minute run, exemplifies the way much of this album was improvised in the studio. The band has been together so long, it instinctively knows how to slide into a groove with seemingly no effort at all.
‘Groove’ is the especially appropriate term for this music when it comes to one titled “Dusting Off The Rust,” a track that mixes noisy electric guitar echo rhythms with a sadly jazzy counter melody, which then ends up sounding like an underground rock club and a traditional jazz club vying like rivals for attention.
Yes, the act’s 1982 album The Days of Wine and Roses included a seven-minute title track jam, and long tracks aren’t especially new for this act. However, an album of five very long jams, is. The Universe Inside is both lengthy and loud. Is it also indulgent? Yes, it is. But when a band is this instinctively and spontaneously powerful, we would do well to indulge it its every sonic wish.