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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Will Steve Wynn Ever Stop Making Good Albums? Not This Year.

In case you were wondering, Steve Wynn has a new album out, Northern Aggression, his first studio album with his regular American touring band the Miracle 3 since 2006’s brilliantly multistylistic tick…tick….tick. It’s everything you would expect from the Carl Yastrzemski of rock. That baseball reference is deliberate: what’s most ironic about Wynn’s career is that despite a seemingly endless series of first-rate albums, not to mention his early years leading iconic, influential indie band the Dream Syndicate, millions know Wynn best as the main songwriter in the Baseball Project, whose songs are featured on broadcasts across the country during the long season. And as fun as that band is, this is better. As with pretty much everything he’s done, many of the songs here are constructed so that there’s plenty of room for a maelstrom of guitar dueling, although there’s understandably less here than there is at live shows where Wynn and his sparring partner Jason Victor go head to head and see how many dangerous new elements they can pull out of the air. One recent review called this Wynn’s most modern-sounding album, and that’s not true. The sound here is vintage, a straight line back to the Stooges, Neil Young, old R&B and soul music, filtered through the eerie fractals of Yo La Tengo and peak-era Sonic Youth (both bands that were influenced by Wynn, by the way, not the other way around).

The opening cut, Resolution, is the closest thing to dreampop he’s ever done, a slow crescendo of suspenseful, murkily cloudy guitar swirl that finds sudden focus in the chorus. The snidely triumpant No One Ever Drowns, an early pre-Dream Syndicate song, is done is pensive, distant new wave that hits another hypnotic peak that just keeps going and going. Consider the Source is a classic, menacing, midtempo, backbeat minor-key gem, all the more impressive that Wynn’s playing piano, Victor is on organ, and that virtually the whole track is an improvisation that came together magically in a single take. The best tracks here might be the allusively menacing, vintage funk-tinged We Don’t Talk About It, the deceptively blithe, equally allusive Cloud Splitter, and the unselfconsciously mournful, pedal steel-driven Americana dirge St. Millwood, which Wynn aptly considered calling Emotional Ambulance Chasers.

Wynn goes back in a dreampop direction with Colored Lights, a sureshot to be a live smash with its big crescendo out. The Death of Donny B is a cover of the theme from the 1969 Carl Fick short film (whose composer remains unknown), done much like the original as a brooding Bill Withers-style funk vamp. The remaining tracks include The Other Side, which wouldn’t have been out of place on Television’s Marquee Moon; On the Mend, another of Wynn’s recent two-part masterpieces, this one shifting from Layla-esque, anthemic pyrotechnics to straight-up riff-rock snarl; and the ridiculously catchy, warmly shufling Ribbons and Chains, which drummer Linda Pitmon – the most consistently interesting drummer in all of rock – absolutely owns. A shout-out to Yep Roc for having the good sense to get behind this. Put this in the Wynn pantheon somewhere between 1997’s Sweetness and Light and the landmark 2000 double album Here Come the Miracles (which was our pick for best album of the past decade).

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January 15, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Steve Wynn at Lakeside, NYC 2/19/10

When a band has as much fun onstage as Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3 had last night at Lakeside, it’s impossible not to get swept up in it. Over a career that spans parts of four decades (five if you count his early days in the late 70s),Wynn’s stock in trade has always been menace – that, and improvisation. These guys are the world’s tightest jam band. Wynn warned the crowd before they began that this wouldn’t be the usual set list – his birthday was coming up, and a milestone at that. But the show was anything but self-indulgent. The quartet spun a web of over a quarter century’s worth of riff-rock, psychedelia, Americana, a rare gem of a pop song and plenty of the growling, hallucinatory, overtone-laden post-Velvets stomp that established Wynn as one of the early titans of indie rock with his band the Dream Syndicate’s iconic 1981 debut album The Days of Wine and Roses. They closed the night with the title track, lead guitarist Jason Victor’s whirlwind of noise scattering pieces of alternate universes amidst the rhythm section’s 2/4 stampede.

Between that and the creepy foreshadowing of a another Dream Syndicate number, Some Kinda Itch, they careened through the bitter, wounded, gorgeously crescendoing Sustain, a hallucinatory, jangly version of the sinister Cindy It Was Always You (lyrics by George Pelecanos) and the epic sweep of No Tomorrow, morphing out of a hypnotic two-guitar charge into the striking contrast of its surprisingly upbeat retro-glamrock conclusion. Bass player Dave DeCastro (on a deliciously gritty-sounding shortscale Telecaster model) got to take a solo early on and made it a plaintive one; Linda Pitmon led a clinic in good fun, Keith Moon style, riffing off both the music and the lyrics and reaffirming her status as the best rock drummer around. Every other song, it seemed, Wynn would coerce Victor in from his forlorn stance by the window and the two would duel, Wynn’s jagged incisiveness versus his sparring partner’s wrathful, overtone-laden leave-me-alone roar.

Wynn’s ex-Green on Red buddy Dan Stuart materialized out of the crowd and led the band through an authentically gleeful version of Baby We All Gotta Go Down, from the legendary first Danny & Dusty record, way back in the 80s. The surprise of the night – there’s always one or two at every Wynn show – was Older, from Wynn’s cult classic Fluorescent cd, ominousness matched to catchy understatement. “Forgive me for living,” went the sarcastic refrain. He wrote that one about eighteen years ago. Predictably, Lakeside was packed, and conversations that would ordinarily be private suddenly were not. Some of the older faction groused about the crowded conditions: why doesn’t Wynn player bigger places? Answer: he does. Bowery Ballroom, for example, where he’s recently done gigs with both Danny & Dusty and his increasingly timely Baseball Project.

February 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Pretty Babies at Lakeside Lounge, NYC, Halloween 2009

by Heather M. Raphael

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday.  I don’t create wonderful and elaborate costumes myself, but I love to look at other peoples’ creative intoxications.  I was not let down by the Pretty Babies (insurgent comedienne/chanteuse Tammy Faye Starlite’s latest project) as Blondie, presenting the Parallel Lines album at Lakeside Lounge in the East Village on Halloween night.  We even had attendance by the current age Debbie Harry herself!  Was it really her or just a fabulous costume?  Unless she’s able to be in two places at once, the real Debbie Harry’s doppelganger had front row seats at our venue, while the real Blondie was playing Halifax, Nova Scotia.

My best laid plans for Halloween this year came crumbling down as the hours ticked away and my escape out of the city to a friend’s Halloween party was foiled by my love/hate relationship with technology.  Luckily a singer/songwriter friend came to my rescue, inviting me into her plans where we met up with some friends at the Lakeside.  It was empty and we scored a table right by the stage.  That’s when I learned about Tammy Fay Starlite and Linda Wynn, aka Linda Pitmon, one of the great female drummers (and also one of the great drummers, end of story).  We got to chat with Linda – very down-to-earth, instantly likeable – during set-up from our strategically placed table.

The Lakeside Lounge quickly packed in a crowd, some costumed, some not, as showtime was upon us.  Tammy…I mean, Debbie…I mean Blondie…oh whatever, gave several shout-outs to Steve Wynn, well known musician since the 1980’s for alternative and classic rock, who was there to see his lovely wife rock the drums.  And she kicked some butt up on that stage!  Not even an uncooperative snare could slow her down.  I’ve never been so mesmerized.  But let’s not forget the rest of the band that pulled this show together.  On bass was Sit n’ Spin’s Mony Falcone; on electric guitars were her bandmate Heidi Lieb and Jill Richmond of the Aquanettas; on keyboards was Bibi Farber; all dressed in black pants, white suit shirts and black skinny ties to boot.

The spot we had was perfect for viewing and listening.  Although Tammy’s mic could have been balanced louder, it did fit with how I always remember Blondie songs – missing half of the Debbie Harry vocals, whenever she sang in her lower, alto range.  At least it was authentic and a great ride down memory lane.  I don’t how the acoustics were for those on the side and and back to the bar: I can’t imagine they could see anything and since the visual aspects were as important as the music, those back there may not have gotten as much out of it.  Tammy Faye Starlite put on a fabulous performance, even getting up on a chair to reach out to her audience in back.  From what I hear, she is a crowd-pleaser, and was no less of one this night.

November 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Steve Wynn and the Dragon Bridge Orchestra: Live in Brussels

For a lot of artists, a show like this would be the high point of a career. For Steve Wynn, it’s just another night on the road. This lush, richly beautiful live album is notable for the fact that the noir rock legend plays it not with his usual backing band the Miracle 3 but instead with much of the crew on his most recent studio cd Crossing Dragon Bridge: Chris Eckman from iconic art-rockers the Walkabouts on guitar (who makes a formidably terse sparring partner with Wynn on several noise jams), former Green on Red keyboardist Chris Cacavas, bassist Eric Van Loo, the irreplaceable, Keith Moon-inspired Linda Pitmon on drums and violinist Rodrigo D’Erasmo, who does a mighty job standing in for the full orchestra behind Wynn on much of the cd. After practically thirty years playing ferocious guitar-driven rock, he went deep into ornate art-rock, and this maintains that feel.

Ornate though it may be, it rocks almost as hard as his hardest stuff: the stark violin tones of the intro, Slovenian Rhapsody Pt. 1 something of a false start, though it sets an ominous tone very effectively. Then everything picks up with a particularly menacing version of the SoCal car cruising anthem Bring the Magic, the Beach Boys through a twisted minor-key funhouse mirror. He gets even more menacing with an almost tongue-in-cheek version of the come-on God Doesn’t Like It, then insistent and down-to-earth with the wise existentialist ballad Here on Earth As Well. With D’Erasmo’s violin leading the way, Tears Won’t Help (opening cut on Wynn’s first full-length album, Kerosene Man) takes on a gorgeously rustic country flavor. The best song on the cd is the one we rated as best song of 2008, the anguished, bitter I Don’t Deserve This. This time, the band does it as a whirling, psychedelic dirge including a screaming noise rock solo from Wynn into the bridge, where suddenly he has an epiphany and then it winds up with another swirling cauldron of noise.

From there, the album could be anticlimactic, but it’s not, testament to the depth of Wynn’s catalog. Punching Holes in the Sky is just Wynn on acoustic and the violin, riveting and intense. “Some things just get better and better/Some things don’t – whatever!” the stalker disingenuously grins to the clueless chick he’s trying to pick up on the ragtime-inflected Wait Until You Get to Know Me. Among the best of the other cuts here – there are too many to enumerate – are a suspenseful solo acoustic version of the classic Silence Is Your Only Friend, a rare version of the blistering anthem 405 with a brutal duel between Wynn and Eckman and the last of the encores, Amphetamine, reinvented as less of a noise jam than full-on orchestral maelstrom, something akin to the Doctors of Madness on…um…take a guess. What else is there to say – put this one in the pantheon and look for it on our Best Albums of 2009 list at the end of the year. Until Wynn decides to bring the equally extraordinary but completely different Live Tick cd from 2006 back into print, this one will do just fine.

June 19, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 6/2/09

Every day, our top 666 songs of alltime countdown gets one step closer to #1. Tuesday’s song is #421:

Steve Wynn – Invisible

The ultimate wee hours walk home song, bars all closed, sun coming up, and you’re feeling completely bulletproof:

 

I’m alone but I’m surrounded by predators and prey

They all turn to butter by the light of day

Nobody sees me as I spread their remains

On my toast in the morning

 

From the 1999 Pick of the Litter cd. By the way, Wynn and his band the Miracle 3 play the classic Dream Syndicate album The Medicine Show all the way through at the Bell House on 6/27 at 7:30 PM.

June 2, 2009 Posted by | lists, Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Paul Wallfisch, Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble, Spottiswoode and Steve Wynn at the Delancey, NYC 4/30/09

An appropriate way to end a grade-A grey day, to steal a phrase from the Wade Schuman songbook. This being a Thursday, that meant Small Beast, Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch’s weekly upstairs show at the Delancey and this was the best ever, no question, in fact arguably the best show of the year so far. Maybe because the quality of the talent on the bill was so obscene, Wallfisch brought his A-game – not that he doesn’t typically put on a good show, but one of the reasons the Beast came to exist was to give him a chance to work out new material solo on piano in a live setting. Consequently, sometimes his set is more akin to a view of an artist’s studio rather than a gallery view of the finished product. Finished or not, the songs resonated with characteristic noir glimmer: the savagely beautiful Botanica concert favorite Three Women; a new one, Waits-ish and gospel-inflected; a towering, majestic new 6/8 ballad that could be the band’s Eldorado; a super-fast romp through the Little Annie noir cabaret hit Because You’re Gone and then the Botanica show-closer, How, a galloping, unstoppable gypsy caravan blazing with torrents of piano and eventually a satirical Riders on the Storm quote, held on a steady course by Linda Pitmon (the best rock drummer on the planet, from Steve Wynn’s band) on tambourine.

Vera Beren’s Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble was next, the band spilling over onto the floor in front of the stage. Their name is well chosen. There was an offhandedly menacing look to the whole black-clad crew, and they were tight beyond belief, their bluesiness most vividly visible in their dramatic, stately noir cabaret numbers. With roaring, punk-inflected guitar, keyboards, rhythm section and guest accordionist Marni Rice supplying the night’s most haunting tonalities behind her, Beren was an avenging angel. Her powerful, anguished contralto wail going full throttle, she radiated intensity throughout a ferocious 45 minutes of big anthems, mostly in 6/8 time. “I’ve seen the lights beyond, I’ve seen the lights that could have gone on if I’d demanded,” she reflected with a passion only enhanced by longing and regret. The high point of her set was the relentlessly haunting gypsy vamp The Nod, her keyboardist opening the song with a murky Balkan trombone riff. Beren opened and closed the set at the piano, playing with a restrained savagery. But it was Rice who stole the show, her wrenchingly sad, poignant tones a stark contrast with Beren’s righteous wrath.

Spottiswoode was next. His myspace shows him in faux-mugshot pose, shades on, a homemade Marseille police department clapboard in hand, a persona that earlier in his career sometimes overshadowed his music. The persona is still there, but he’s grown into the old rake he always wanted to be, albeit with a strikingly politically aware sensibility – Marty Willson-Piper is an apt comparison. He started out solo on guitar with a bawdy English dancehall number, That’s What I Like, imbued with characteristic boozy sarcasm. Then he went to the piano and got serious, resulting in an often riveting show, the rest of his songs imbued with a woodpaneled, rain-soaked, early 70s European ambience. His best number was a big, somewhat anguished ballad with some tasty major/minor changes: “Save up the days until the war begins,” he cautioned. It’s still sometimes hard to tell whether he’s being satirical or not, but this show was a revelation.

Steve Wynn headlined, playing with his longtime lead guitarist Chris Brokaw for the first time in eight years. Wynn’s stock in trade is menace, but this show had an especially warm, intimate feel, not only because the two guys were jammed up there on the little stage with Pitmon looking on warily, tambourine in hand, but because this was all about joy and rediscovery. Their guitar duels, both on record and onstage, are the stuff of legend: get your hands on a classic like Melting in the Dark or Here Come the Miracles (both of which you’ll find on our upcoming Best Albums of the Decade list), or spend an hour or two (you’ll probably be there that long) at archive.org. This time it was about trading off, about getting back in touch with the songs, stripping them to nothing but the shell (they played that one, sorry, couldn’t resist) to see what they were made of. More often than not, it was lush, jangly melody, without hardly a hint of the noise or unrestrained wrath you’d expect from a full-band show by these two.

An unexpected cover of Waiting for the Man was every bit as tense and nervous as Lou Reed should have made it. The big, grim suicide anthem Southern California Line was transformed into a terse, minimalist dirge. The menacing Morning After – the best song ever written about perjury – segued into an even more menacing, skeletal Silence Is Your Only Friend. Then they took it up, transforming the darkly galloping Death Valley Rain into a swaying, hypnotic clinic in harmony and overtones before bringing it all the way down with a slow, evil version of the Dream Syndicate classic When You Smile. How cruelly ironic that the only place in town you could see a show this good this year would not be at Madison Square Garden, where by all rights all these acts deserve to play, but upstairs at the Delancey on a little stage half-occupied by the Small Beast, an 88-key spinet piano.

And walking across the bridge after the show, it was impossible not to smile seeing all those HIPSTERS GO HOME stencils on the pavement. In fact, in every case they all happened to be very close to stencils for THE BROOKLYN WHAT FOR BOROUGH PRESIDENT, and in the exact same spray paint color.

May 6, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, small beast | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album Review: Steve Wynn – …tick…tick…tick

The best cd of 2006 was the one I didn’t review last year. No great surprise – always behind the eightball half the time. This is the concluding chapter of Wynn’s “desert trilogy” that began with 2001’s volcanic tour de force Here Come the Miracles, followed by the erratic but frequently brilliant Static Transmission. Steve Wynn is the Carl Yastrzemski of rock: he’s been so reliably good for so long that he gets taken for granted. Oh yeah, Steve Wynn, great live performer, hundreds of great songs, a gazillion albums. The guy from the Dream Syndicate. Yeah, him.

Yeah, this album. Unlike its two predecessors, it sounds like it was recorded old school, 1960s style in a couple of days’ time, everyone in the band coming in knowing exactly what they had to do and pinning the meter to the red when it was their turn to record. At this point in history, Wynn and his band the Miracle 3 are the best straight-up rock band in the world, bar none. Their live shows are legendary (check out the goodies up on archive.org), so much that it begs the question: why get a Steve Wynn studio album when you can hear him and band at their molten-lava best in concert or on a bootleg? Answer: their studio albums are shows unto themselves. For all I know, this one was probably recorded more or less live: at least that’s how it sounds. The band is more terse, more focused than ever, especially noisemeister Jason Victor on lead guitar and the nimble, inventive Dave DeCastro on bass. As usual, drummer Linda Pitmon distinguishes herself as the best in the business: like her idol Keith Moon, she’s all about surprise, throwing accents and rolls in when least expected, making the most seemingly random beats absolutely crucial to the song.

Wynn’s stock in trade is menace, and this album is no exception, from the title’s bomb reference to the hot pepper glowing fire engine red on the album cover. He gets a lot of Neil Young and Velvet Underground comparisons, and while both influences lurk in the background, three times removed, he’s established his own signature sound. It’s basic two-guitar, meat-and-potatoes rock, frequently based around a central riff (think the Stooges or Kinks), colored with all kinds of delicious noise and overtones, driven by a relentless, dark lyrical vision. There’s less guitar dueling here than there is in his most recent work, but the intensity is undiminished, from the cd’s pummeling opening cut Wired (“oh no, why am I wired this way?!?”) through its closing partita, the haunting No Tomorrow, a remarkably successful shot at ending the album on an uplifting note without getting stuck in cheese. Otherwise, it’s pretty much nonstop adrenaline. The album’s second cut, Cindy, It Was Always You features lyrics by acclaimed crime novelist (and screenwriter for HBO’s The Wire) George Pelecanos: it’s ostensibly a lament for the girl a guy never got, but Wynn delivers it with characteristically evil glee, sounding like a serial killer. The following cut, Freak Star continues in a similar vein, Victor and Wynn’s sinewy guitars coiling and uncoiling and licking the melody like flames around a gasoline tanker that’s just jackknifed on the freeway. Plenty of other good songs on the album: the darkly amusing, stomping Bruises (“I fall down easy but I get up slow/I really really hope that the bruises don’t show”); the macabre urban blues All the Squares Go Home, and the similar, quietly ominous Turning of the Tide.

There’s also the frenetic Wild Mercury, a worthy, out-of-control follow-up to Amphetamine, from Wynn’s previous album: Wynn has explained how this is what happens when guy from Amphetamine keeps doing what he’s doing and goes from blissed-out, adrenaline-fueled ecstasy to being utterly impossible to deal with. The album ends better than I thought it would after hearing most of these songs live. Its final cut is in two parts, the first a gorgeous, fast anthem, staring death straight down the middle of the blacktop. But then it morphs into a happily stomping retro 60s pop hit that owes more than a little to All the Young Dudes. And it works, because even though the mood changes, the band keeps cooking, all the way through. What remains is burned around the edges and very tasty, maybe something akin to the goat curry that Wynn credits for helping with the creative process out in Tucson where this and his previous two studio albums were recorded. Since being recorded, this album has been superseded by a live version, Live Tick, released in Europe last summer, all the more reason to pick up this one and then hear how they’ve mangled it even more. Wynn is back on his feet after a broken ankle and will appear on new albums coming out this year from Danny & Dusty and Smack Dab, so some area live appearances should be in store at some point.

May 5, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment