CD Review: Steve Wynn – Crossing Dragon Bridge
Like his colleagues Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello, Steve Wynn has a richly prolific body of work, dating to the early 80s and the pioneering noise-rock band the Dream Syndicate. Although Wynn rocks harder than those other two artists, he’s equally competent at darkly gentle acoustic stylings and slashingly lyrical songwriting. Whenever he puts out a new cd (almost every year, it seems), it’s always amusing to read the reviews: everything seems to be Wynn’s best in a long, long time. Well, his most recent solo studio cd before this one was …tick…tick…tick (reviewed here in our earliest days last year) and that one was killer. So is this. While not everything Wynn touches – from Danny and Dusty, his wildly carousing duo project with Green on Red founder Dan Stuart, or the Baseball Project band he has with Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey – is visionary, this cd is. It seems that every great songwriter eventually ends up playing orchestrated rock, and Wynn’s first venture into this kind of uncharted territory ranks with his finest work. Time may judge this a classic.
In a drastic departure from Wynn’s usual MO in the studio, producer Chris Eckman (leader of another extraordinary, long-running band, the Walkabouts) was insistent on getting Wynn to play as many instruments as he could by himself, rather than utilizing the skills of his snarling backup band the Miracle 3). The result here blends lot of acoustic guitar and some electric piano with lush, epic string arrangements that take Wynn’s dark, frequently ominous songs to new levels of majestic grandeur. Perhaps in keeping with the time-honored tradition of 70s art-rock, the cd begins and ends with a “Slovenian Rhapsody.” “On my own again, haunted by the rain,” is the opening line of its second part, encapsulating Wynn’s signature style with characteristically terse understatement.
The first full-length song on the cd is Manhattan Fault Line, a false start of sorts: it’s an attempt to transpose the ever-present LA earthquake threat to the opposite coast, and ultimately it sinks under its own gravitas. The rest of the cd, however, is another story. Driven by a relentless minor-key groove, Love Me Anyway gets thisclose to desperation without falling over the edge. Then there’s a subdued cover by a Slovenian folksinger that sounds like something Wynn could have written in his early post Dream Syndicate days, and the strikingly optimistic When We Talk About Forever, a big acoustic ballad in 6/8 with those gorgeous strings. Wynn’s vocals have never been stronger than they are on this cd, and this song resonates confidence, yet with apprehension lurking in the background.
The next track, Annie & Me is just acoustic guitar and drum machine, sort of Kooks by Bowie updated for an older couple a decade or three later. The noir cabaret number Wait Until You Get to Know Me is Wynn at his menacing best, the leering tale of a sinister would-be ladykiller who won’t take no for an answer. The levels come down a bit after that but the darkness remains with Punching Holes in the Sky, sparse minor-key acoustic guitar playing against the orchestra:
Strip away the mystery
Lash out at the night
Strip away the storyline
But can I make it right?
Wynn picks up the pace after that with the equally menacing, somewhat hallucinatory Bring the Magic and the strange God Doesn’t Like It (is the song’s bullying narrator to be taken at face value, or is this satire?), then brings it down again with the somewhat breathless, plainspoken nonconformist anthem Believe in Yourself. As Wynn frequently does, he saves the best for last here with I Don’t Deserve This, a big, brooding, absolutely sinister epic building from eerie tremolo guitar and electric piano to mammoth proportions. It’s a bitter, anguished tale of being unable to get away from the enemy, whoever that may be, literal or figurative, and it’s simply one of the three or four most exhilarating, resonant songs released this year. “Violence tricks my ears,” Wynn notes matter-of-factly as the second Slovenian Rhapsody brings the cd to a close.
Like most New York-based artists, Wynn’s shows here in town have become infrequent: like everybody else, he makes his money on the road. For those in LA this weekend, Steve Wynn plays the Cinema Bar, 3967 Sepulveda Blvd. in Culver City, 310-390-1328 on Nov 29.
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