Graded on a Curve:
The Dream Syndicate, Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions

As a cornerstone act in the framework of the Paisley Underground, The Dream Syndicate stand as one of the highpoints of 1980s rock. New record Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions is the band’s fourth since recommencing activities in 2012, and their eighth studio LP overall. Due to a blaringly evident disinclination to merely rehash past glories, the set is something of a rarity in the annals of post-reunion albums, and quite the worthwhile effort; if it doesn’t sound like The Dream Syndicate of yore, the outfit’s personality still permeates the album’s ten tracks. It’s out June 10 on standard black or transparent violet vinyl and compact disc through Fire Records.

The Dream Syndicate’s debut full-length record, The Days of Wine and Roses, is absolutely crucial to a full understanding of rock’s evolution in the decade of its making. That might read as hyperbole, but the statement more than holds up under scrutiny, as the record’s punk-injected blend of the Velvet Underground and Crazy Horse (with outstanding songs in the bargain) has been a mainstay on turntables (and assorted other listening apparatuses) since Slash Records subsidiary Ruby put it out in 1982.

But the latest release by the band, which is currently comprised of singer-songwriter-guitarist Steve Wynn and drummer Dennis Duck, both founding members, bassist Mark Walton, who joined in 1984, lead guitarist Jason Victor, and now newest addition, keyboardist Chris Cacavas (longtime contributor formerly of Paisley Underground cohorts Green on Red) unfolds in a manner that makes anything more than a standard background reference to the band’s first (roughly) eight-year run register as inappropriate.

However, let’s be clear. The Dream Syndicate’s reemergence was initially a live affair that, amongst numerous appearances, offered in-sequence performances of their first album and its follow-up, 1984’s underrated (and way out-of-print) Medicine Show. And while neither 2017’s How Did I Find Myself Here? (which featured vocals by founding member Kendra Smith on closing track “Kendra’s Dream”) and 2019’s These Times is anywhere close to a calculated revamp of the band’s ’80s glories, both of those records offer passages that do ring out like the Syndicate of the old days.

It was 2020’s The Universe Inside that really found them spreading out and expanding beyond what’s long been considered the Syndicate’s structural core. Like, literally spreading out, with the set’s opening track breaking the 20-minute mark, the closer nearly reaching 11, and the shortest of the other three cuts hitting seven and a half.

Now, long songs aren’t a new thing in the Syndicate’s scheme (“Talking John Coltrane Stereo Blues” from Medicine Show stands as one of their enduring songs), but the impact of Krautrock certainly was. In presenting a veteran band that’s primary focus is obviously pleasing themselves, The Universe Inside stands as a fascinating record.

Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions follows it up with ten tighter, shorter songs (nothing breaks six minutes, all but four wrap up in under five) that miraculously avoid any sense of backsliding, mainly because the contents are so diverse. Analogue synth-like tones arrive right off the bat in opener “Where I’ll Stand,” suggesting a mid-’90s release on the Too Pure label perhaps, but this atmosphere quickly gives way to a guitar-loaded rocker in a sturdy mid-tempo with just the right amount of the anthemic.

The tough melodic-rock of “Damian” really emphasizes Wynn’s pop savvy. In the early ’80s (or even a decade later), the track could’ve been a radio hit. And that might not read like strong praise, but the cut is delivered without compromise (and it even sports backing vocals). Contrasting, “Beyond Control” is initially much moodier, with an almost ’90s Alt-electronica sensibility, at least until the motorik rhythm kicks into gear. From there, “The Chronicles of You” swings back toward the heavier side of the spectrum, but with Cacavas’ understated keyboards lending cohesiveness.

What bonds the record even further is Wynn’s writing, which has been key to the band’s success from the start. “Hard to Say Goodbye” is a solid tune given an extra boost with pedal steel (I do believe by Stephen McCarthy of another Paisley U-ground act the Long Ryders), and horns from Marcus Tenney. And “Every Time You Come Around” is a wonderfully textured cut (very late ’90s-early ’00s indie in the best way possible) with writing that’s subtly reminiscent of Ira Kaplan’s (another guy who took that VU influence and ran a long way with it).

“Trying to Get Over” is pretty close to what people talk about when they talk about 1980s Dream Syndicate, while unwinding as trimmer and with a hint of that motorik style underneath. Next, “Lesson Number One” gives the melodic rock a dose of the neo-psych (comes easy, as the band is one of contempo psych’s foundational units).

As Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions hits the home stretch, “My Lazy Mind” radiates like late period Leonard Cohen cutting a record in the desert with members of Giant Sand backing him up (and maybe Geoff Barrow producing), and closer “Straight Lines” is just no-frills brawny Farfisa-driven garage rock, a sweet twist to another invigoratingly unexpected album from The Dream Syndicate, a band firing on full cylinders and moving confidently forward.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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