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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).

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

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