After Steve Wynn denied being inspired by the Velvet Underground – y’know, despite their name being a reference to a John Cale project; despite their debut’s album title being a reference to a Velvet Underground song; despite songs sounding exactly like non-cover versions of Velvet Underground songs and despite songs containing lyrics that lift lines straight out of other Velvet Underground songs – he and his band decide to follow the critical success of The Days of Wine and Roses by not mining that same sound.
Instead, for sophomore album Medicine Show, their first album on a major label, they focused more on the Neil Young and Crazy Horse sound that contemporary critics (somehow) completely overlooked; hiring their own Nicky Hopkins in Tom Zvoncheck for some Rolling Stones goodness; Dave Provost (best known for working alongside Al Green) replacing original bassist Kendra Smith to add some funk into the mix and Steve Wynn mixing some Iggy Pop with his Lou Reed. Unfortunately, the people who helped make The Days of Wine and Roses and its positive reception a reality shouted sell-outs (also, as popmatter’s Zachary Houle’s writes in the best review of the album I’ve seen, “neither [Neil Young and Mick Jagger] was a cool touchstone for hipsters at the time”), and unable to get any songs on the radio (their own fault for picking the least single-ready songs as singles), A&M dropped the Dream Syndicate as fast as they picked them up and Medicine Show shuffled out of view.
That’s a damn shame, because not only does Medicine Show contain their best song ever, it is, as a whole, better than The Days of Wine and Roses. That being said, it’s not as perfect as revisionists would have you believe (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck probably should’ve picked any Rolling Stones not named Exile on Main Street when praising the album). Songs like “Daddy’s Girl” and “Armed with an Empty Gun” are cockrockers that no one needs to hear, the latter complete with some rather embarrassing backing vocals (probably inspiring R.E.M.’s “Ignoreland” – not a good thing) and another needless Velvet Underground reference (“I couldn’t hit it sideways”), while others (“Bullet With My Name On It,” “The Medicine Show”) feel stretched out to help the 8-track album meet the length quota. In the revised liner notes for the 2010 reissue of the album, Steve Wynn wrote that “Karl [Precoda] wanted to make a big, panoramic rock record to justify our move to a major label.” The hooks here are bigger than ever, often thanks to backing vocals (see: “Still Holding On to You” and “Bullet With Your Name On It”). And although I can see where he’s coming from when allmusic’s Mark Deming writes that “Tom Zvoncheck’s keyboards, for all their drama, never really find their way into the music,” they provide much-needed melody at first to closer “Merrittville” and later form great harmonies with the guitar (see the 4:20 mark).
Finally, their best song – “John Coltrane Stereo Blues,” the only song here credited to the whole band. Whereas the much-celebrated title track from The Days of Wine and Roses began to lose its fire before its 7-minute runtime finished, Provost’s funky bassline (one of the best in rock, if you’d ask me) prevents “John Coltrane” from ever getting boring. Furthermore, while the visceral guitars heard in live recordings of “The Days of Wine and Roses” didn’t transpose fully into the studio version, they do here – listen to the 3:53 mark onwards to see what I mean. Lyrically, Steve Wynn picks up where Mick Jagger left off, “I got some fine wine in the freezer, mama / I know what you like,” “I said a man works hard all day / He can do what he wants to / At night / Come on, come on, AHHH!” “Reckless, youthful abandon” indeed.