Steve Wynn is an American musician, the leader and songwriter of legendary Paisley Underground band The Dream Syndicate. His career aside from the band is equally noteworthy – well over ten solo albums since 1990, and additional albums as part of Danny & Dusty (with Dan Stuart), indie super-group, Gutterball (with Stephen McCarthy, Bryan Harvey, Johnny Hott and Armistead Welford), Spanish band Australian Blonde and (another) supergroup The Baseball Project (with Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and Linda Pitmon). He was also part of Smack Dab (a Spanish only album, with Paco Loco and Linda Pitmon).
Fellow musician Elliott Murphy provides an insightful letter of reference: “although one generation later than my own, Steve Wynn surely belongs to that rare and dwindling breed of gentlemen singer-songwriters (sub-genus Rock ’n Roll) which counts Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and (hopefully) myself among its senior members. A happy road warrior if ever there was one, whenever our paths cross it’s time for celebration and renewed friendship. Great guitarist, fine songwriter and cool dresser. I mean, what else matters?”
Wynn’s first two solo albums, Kerosene Man (1990) and Dazzling Display (1992), were both served by expanded editions by Omnivore in 2018. Wynn’s third, Fluorescent (1993), was re-released by Blue Rose Records in 2002 with seven bonus tracks. Decade continues the story, an 11 CD set that chronicles the guitar-driven albums Wynn recorded between 1995 and 2005, most of which have been long unavailable. It compiles 166 tracks, 57 of them previously unreleased, plus 31 other rarities; included are the American releases, Melting In The Dark (1995), Sweetness and Light (1997), My Midnight (1999), Here Come The Miracles (2001), Static Transmission (2003), and …Tick, Tick, Tick (2006), the German-only compilation, The Emusic Singles Collection (2001). Also featured are tracks from Euro release rarities collection, Pick of the Litter (1999).
To further explain the nature of Decade, over half of the songs on these 11 CDs consist of either previously unknown recordings or tracks that have been difficult to find; journalist and musician Pat Thomas listened to about 100 hours of unreleased tapes and compiled the “bonus” CDs. The albums were remastered by Mike Milchner of SonicVision, and there’s a colour booklet with Wynn’s sleeve notes for the previously unreleased songs, essays from Thomas and several of Wynn’s long time bandmates, as well as previously unseen photos.
Decade is available on CD and download (our Decade playlist – click here). Here’s our run down of the box set.
Steve Wynn: Melting in the Dark
Facts and Stats: this is Wynn’s fourth solo album, released in 1995 (Wynn was also part of Gutterball, who released two albums, Weasel and Turnyor Hedinkov, the same year). Melting in the Dark followed the mail order release of Wynn’s Take Your Flunky (1994), by the Return to Sender label (Normal Records). In the US Melting in the Dark was released as Zero Hour.
The album was recorded with American alternative rock band, Come. This albums’ recording sessions were the last times the original line-up of the band recorded together. According to Wynn’s website, Melting in the Dark was recorded in two sessions, the first was a sixteen hour day at Fort Apache Studios with engineer Wally Nagel (Superchunk, Sebadoh, Folk Implosion) laying down eight songs, seven of which ultimately made it to the album. The session went so well that the team got back together four months later to record another seven songs. The album was mixed in Los Angeles with long-time producer/mixer Joe Chiccarelli.
Wynn considers this album as rivalling (The Dream Syndicate’s) Ghost Stories (1988) and Medicine Show (1984) as “my most punishing and confrontational set of songs” (Complete Lyrics 1982-2017).
What The Critics Thought: “aggressive pop music that is fresh and original” (Stir); “Wynn has written and produced a batch of songs that hearken back to his legendary early `80s band Dream Syndicate, part of LA’s “Paisley Underground,” as well as his garage-rock super-group Gutterball” (CMJ).
What We Think: Melting in the Dark may take a couple of listens for the hooks to sink-in, but this is an album with depth. Come’s dark energy is well suited to material like the heavy “Epilogue”, the minor chord liturgic hymn of “Down”, the grungy scaring of children in “Drizzle, and the moody “Silence Is Your Only Friend” (Wynn comments on the disparity of writing a song about silence during his first year of living in the noisy city of New York). Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground is an obvious influence on “The Angels”; in the liner notes Wynn says he was trying to achieve the kind of “heated rush” that Lou gets on “Wait” from Street Hassle.
Essential tracks: the fierce riff and punk attitude of “Why”; the call and response of “Stare It Down”. Wynn is a glutton for punishment in the tough “The Way You Punish Me”.
Bonus material: on a separate CD, there are 12 unreleased demos, two studio outtakes, a frantic alternate version of “Why” (with the Pat Thomas band, featuring Chris Cacavas, but (box set producer) Pat Thomas himself sitting this one out), an unreleased radio performance (a great live version of “Follow Me” from Fluorescent for Dutch national radio during the European tour to promote Melting in the Dark), and a meandering, but atmospheric cover of The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” (first issued on tribute album Sing Hollies In Reverse).
Highlights of the demos are “Smooth”, with its striking Suicide-like sound, written for Swedish band The Nomads; the energetic “Nothing but the Shell”, written with Eric Ambel of Del Lords (and which features in a Kevin Bacon movie); “Stare It Down”, with its distinctive rhythm track (“a dog panting from down the hallway? A broken train moving in slow motion?”); the dark “What We Call Love, and the mysterious “Nothing at All”. We see the progression of “James River Incident”, written with Stephen McCarthy for the second Gutterball album, from dour demo to tough studio outtake (latter released on Pick of the Litter). A notably lively track is “Make It Up to You”, first recorded with Eleventh Dream Day, but here re-recorded with Come, originally released on mail order album The Suitcase Sessions (1998).
Steve Wynn: Sweetness and Light
Facts and Stats: recorded in 1997 in Hoboken, New Jersey with the live band Wynn had been working with for the previous year: Rich Gilbert (guitarist, who was in the Zulus and Human Sexual Response), Armistead Wellford (bass, from Love Tractor and Gutterball), and Linda Pitmon (drummer, from Zuzu’s Petals). The partnership with Pitmon continued professionally and personally, with further records and marriage in 2008. It was also the first work with producer/engineer John Agnello, who would become a regular collaborator (Agnello suggests in the liner notes to Decade that they have worked on maybe nine records together).
The album was made in 20 days, which for Wynn is “kind of an epic” as many of this other records were made more quickly. Wynn says this album was a combination of things he liked best about his earlier solo albums – the raw live band sound of Melting in the Dark, the song-writing style of Fluorescent and Kerosene Man and some of the pop production touches of Dazzling Display. Gilbert described the sessions as “easy and inspired”.
Wynn notes in his Complete Lyrics 1982-2017 that he was in a good mood and having fun making this record having met Pitmon; “it’s a poppy, diverse record, but there’s also a certain archness, a caustic underpinning to the advertised sweetness and the promised light”.
The same year, the Return to Sender label (Normal Records) also released Wynn’s The Suitcase Sessions by mail order with tracks from The Melting in the Dark era.
What The Critics Thought: “Wynn’s departure from his Velvet Underground white noise fixation, which didn’t truly begin until Melting in the Dark, continues here. While not as spectacular as Melting in the Dark, Sweetness and Light is a natural progression for Wynn (Pitchfork)”; “Sweetness and Light has a grander array of sonic textures and a number of well-crafted songs that make it worthwhile for longtime fans” (AllMusic).
What We Think: a great album, and perhaps a good place to start for newcomers to Wynn’s solo career due to the instant appeal of upbeat, optimistic songs like the title track. “Silver Lining”, which bears a slight resemblance to Husker Dü, and announces Pitmon’s arrival with some distinct drumming (Wynn says this is “my only song about airline turbulence and cross-country travel”). “How’s My Little Girl” is a worthy competitor to Tom Petty at his most rousing. There is still some room for experimentation with the unusual sound effects and layers of sound of “Ghosts” (of which Wynn says features a “recurring theme in my songs around this time – you move on, you get your shit together but the past is never that far behind”), and the appropriately full-on arrangement of “In Love with Everyone”. The cover of the soul classic “That’s the Way Love Is” by The Isley Brothers, and made well known by Marvin Gaye, is an unexpected pleasure with a cool vocal and great guitar solo.
Essential tracks: catchy 60’s throwback “This Strange Effect” (written by Ray Davies) with its gnarly guitar; the tough “Blood from A Stone”; the melodic, piano driven “If My Life Was an Open Book”.
Bonus material: five unreleased demos on the same CD as the album. All the demos are in final versions on the album itself, but the demos are still an interesting listen. “Black Magic”, “straight down the middle classic rock”, with Wynn “a card carrying member of the CCR fan club when I was a young tyke”, is in rudimentary form, as are the demos of “This Deadly Game”, “Silver Lining”, and “Ghosts”. “Blood from a Stone”, an unreleased demo with Gutterball (Stephen McCarthy on slide guitar), is a song that went “around the block” a few times, with box set producer Pat Thomas also recording a version at around the same time. Apparently on the same day they recorded other songs (not on this CD) with cameos from Susanna Hoffs, Victoria Williams and Mark Linkous.
Steve Wynn: My Midnight
Facts and Stats: My Midnight is Wynn’s sixth solo album, released in 1999 two years on from Sweetness and Light.
My Midnight was recorded in five days at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey with Chris Brokaw (guitar), Tony Maimone (bass, from Pere Ubu), Joe McGinty (keyboards) and Linda Pitmon (drums). Wynn had previously worked with Brokaw (as guitarist of Come) on Melting in the Dark and with Pitmon on Sweetness and Light. Wynn co-produced with John Agnello, who also returned from the last album. Wynn says this album was the product of “that rare and much-desired occurrence where each player is at the top of his game and communicating effortlessly with each other”.
Note: there’s also a two CD version of My Midnight issued by Blue Rose Records, with an extra disc of a live gig from The Ancienne Belgique, Belgium in 1998.
What The Critics Thought: “With trademark lyric wordplay and plenty of catchy tunes, Wynn and company are in fine form throughout” (AllMusic); “Brimming with wit, scratchy rhythms and nifty hooks, these tunes showcase Wynn’s sure-handed approach to bash ‘n’ pop” (Metro Active); “Piano, brushed drums, and tempered guitar guide many of these tracks, and the production places Wynn’s dry crackle of a voice cleanly front-and-center” (Boston Phoenix).
What We Think: My Midnight is a relatively gentle and low key album, but is quietly sophisticated: “Lay of The Land” and “Ladies and Gentleman* sound like Transformer era Lou Reed. There is a full sound to the album, with harmonica (“Nothing but The Shell”), brass (“Cats and Dogs”) and accordion (“The Mask of Shame”). This is an adept and proficient band; McGinty’s keyboards are a strong feature throughout, particularly the warm organ on “Cats and Dogs”, the quirky synth on the tile track, and the Doors-like keyboard on the stomping “500 Girl Mornings”. A number of the tracks fly with good spirited verve (“My Favorite Game” and “Out of This World”), and there is intense drama on “Mandy Breakdown”.
Essential tracks: the resplendent “In Your Prime” is enthusiastically “obvious but elusive” with some interesting lyrics; Wynn says he was “in the thrall of the easy, breezy and wordy style of Belle and Sebastian”. “Cats and Dogs” and “We’ve Been Hanging Out” features great dual vocals with Linda Pitmon.
Bonus material: there are five extra tracks on the album and a second bonus disc with a further 18 tracks. Many of these are demos from Studio G; Wynn comments in the notes that he was surprised how much these particular demos resemble the final versions.
The additional five tracks on the album include two versions of “Smoke from a Distant Flame”, which despite being “given every chance to succeed” had no official studio release (although it appeared on 1999 collection Pick of the Litter). The studio outtake has a bluegrass tinge, and the unreleased Studio G demo swings with soul like a lost Marvin Gaye classic. The piano driven “My Family” and “Don’t Be Afraid” (the latter again with an unexpected bluegrass influence) also appear as remarkably advanced and sophisticated Studio G demos; both are great songs and demonstrate the wealth of material Wynn sometimes has to choose from for his official albums.
The 18 tracks on the second bonus disc are made up of seven unreleased demos, a further ten demos from Studio G and a studio outtake of “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” (the Eric Clapton/Bobby Whitlock song which also appears on Pick of the Litter). Again, the Studio G Demos are impressive: “Cats and Dogs” already has its double vocal, “Lay of the Land” has some intricate piano playing, “My Midnight” has an appealing arrangement, and the lo-fi “My Favorite Game” has a fierce guitar solo. “In Your Prime” is noticeably exuberant.
“Halfway to the Afterlife”, an ambitious attempt at prog rock, appears both as a studio G demo and as an unreleased demo; Wynn says that “it’s epic, it’s grand, it’s a Big Subject” (we concur), and he wonders if Peter Gabriel may take this one on if looking for material. Wynn rightly calls Joe McGinty’s playing “positively heroic”. The demo of “The Impossible” develops into a futuristic groove, and is a high quality song to not be included on the album.
My Midnight had four co-writes, the title track written with Kurt Raiske of Ultra Vivid Scene, “Nothing But The Shell”, written with Eric Ambel, and two tracks with Johnny Holt (House of Freaks/Gutterball), “We’ve Been Hanging Out” and “500 Girl Mornings”. According to the liner notes, Holt sent Wynn a 12 song cassette instrumentals played on “weird broken keyboards and drum machines”, and Wynn found this was an inspiring collection, writing lyrics to every song “in real time” as he listened to the cassette. Wynn continued to write the songs in the character of “Mercy Delorean, a fictionally faded obscure ‘60s chanteuse who had fallen on hard times, faded from memory and been rediscovered and put in the studio by Svengalis Wynn and Holt”. Holt’s original cassette is not reproduced here, but several of Wynn’s versions do. “Invisible” has two versions on CD1 as a spooky keyboard demo, and on CD2 as a fuller version from Studio G, with guitar and a female vocal interlude. According to Wynn, the song evokes the feeling Wynn would get on his 4 am walks home from bars in the East Village: “some of the streets would get a little rough, but the alcohol intake, the late night and the excitement of the city made me feel like I was truly invisible”. Both versions of the song admirably re-create this atmosphere.
“We’ve Been Hanging Out” (which Wynn says always reminded him of “Waiting for a Girl Like You” by Foreigner) and “500 Girl Mornings” were two other songs written as a result of Holt’s tape, and appear on the official album; they are also on CD2 as Studio G demos in simpler, but not dissimilar versions. CD2 also contains two versions of “Easy”, written with keyboard player Joe McGinty. Wynn says McGinty has “a knack for finding musical places where kitsch, fanatical obsession and unguarded sincerity all mix together” and thinks “Easy” captures all of these elements. The track is a downbeat torch song; Wynn croons deep like Elvis at Vegas, with the second demo sounding as if we’re deep in the singer’s multi-tracked mind.
Also on CD2 are some additional demos of tracks from the album, including a folky version of “The Mask of Shame, a demo of “Lay of the Land” with electric guitar only, a minimalist and menacing “My Favorite Game”, using a Dr. Rhythm D-55 drum machine (Wynn expresses his appreciation for this machine by noting that he has never had to make it lunch), and “Mandy Breakdown”, on which we can hear Wynn writing the song in real time, “the fuzzy image in my mind struggling to find its ways to my fingers”.
Steve Wynn: Here Come the Miracles
Facts and Stats: after 1999’s My Midnight, Glitterhouse released outtake collection Pick of the Litter (1,000 copies only, available through the label, at shows and via Wynn’s fan club). Wynn then began the 21st century with the release (on download) of Live at the Ancienne Belgique, and collaborated with Spanish indie rock band Australian Blonde’s Momento.
And then there was Here Come the Miracles, a double album recorded in Tucson, Arizona, at Wavelab Studios and released in 2001 by European label Blue Rose Records. This is the first album in Wynn’s “desert trilogy” (to follow were Static Transmission and …Tick…Tick…Tick), and the first formal appearance of the Miracles.
Here Come the Miracles is credited to Steve Wynn solely, whereas subsequent “Miracle” albums would be credited to Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3. For this album, the Miracles was made up of some familiar and new faces, Chris Brokaw (guitar) and Linda Pitmon (drums) were brought back from previous solo albums; Chris Cacavas (ex Green on Red) joined to play piano/keyboards, and Dave Decastro joined to add bass. Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), John Convertino (Calexico) and Craig Schumacher also make guest appearances.
On his website, Wynn describes this album as “cocky, sprawling and swaggering”; he also notes the critics picked up on this release and proclaimed it the best he had ever recorded. The album won the prize of best “Rock Alternative” album of 2001, at the annual AFIM Indie Awards. Linda Pitmon co-wrote three of the tracks (“Here Come the Miracles” “Death Valley Rain” and “Topanga Canyon Freaks”). According to Wynn, the lyrics “show nostalgia, rage, innocence, dread, faith, humour, remorse, stoicism and collapse from song to song. All of the essential lyrical food groups.” (Complete Lyrics 1982-2017)
What The Critics Thought ”The wide-ranging double CD… surges and sputters like a rattletrap speeding through the desert, praying for one more gas station past the last chance….it’s an exhilarating ride. Just close your eyes, throw your head back and smell the dust as it whips through your hair” (Philadelphia City); “Wynn fires back with both barrels blazing….Wynn’s nineteen-song cycle of a Southern California suspended between the millennium and the apocalypse infuses his literary aspirations with rock ‘n’ roll smarts, as if he’s fronting Raymond Chandler’s supercharged garage band” (No Depression); “The result is a freewheeling yet self-assured balance of Wynn’s own voice and the influences long associated with him – the darkness of the Velvet Underground, the spaciousness of Neil Young and the oblique introspection of Bob Dylan” (Los Angeles Times); “When all the good impulses fall together, as on the exciting title track, Here Come the Miracles is stirring and strong, but maintaining that focus over the course of 19 songs proves impossible…..The quality is there, the clear-headed judgment (a common affliction of double-albums) isn’t” (Trouser Press).
What We Think: the re-issue of Here Come the Miracles on Decade wisely retains the double album format, keeping the original 11 and eight tracks on CD1 and CD2 respectively. Here Come the Miracles has a distinct sound with propulsive drums and gnarly guitar. Psychedelic rock opener “Here Come the Miracles” is a fuzzy statement of intent, and as a double album there is enough room to explore some different styles and influences, including: lo-fi Velvet Underground (“Charity”/“Morningside Heights”/“Drought”), extended instrumental passages and wig-outs (“Good and Bad”/“Smash Myself to Bits”), the quirky (“Let’s Leave It Like That”), downbeat blues shuffles (“Blackout”/“Topanga Canyon Freaks”), and indie anthem (“Sustain” – DeCastro comments in the liner notes to Decade that this improvisation turned out to be the final version – “happening pretty much instantaneously with the contradicting bass riff battling the chord progression”). The album is at times dark and dramatic (“Butterscotch”/“Sunset to The Sea”), but most engaging when at high energy, with thumping drums and guitar (“Strange New World”, “Death Valley Rain”).
Essential tracks: on CD1, the catchy indie garage rock of “Shades of Blue” and “Crawling Misanthropic Blues”. Also, “Southern California Line”, with its CCR style chord progression, and which Wynn describes as “loud, grinding, pounding and yet like a secret told in the corner of a sweaty nightclub.”
On CD2, the uncompromising rock of “Watch Your Step” and the “dinosaur stomp” of “There Will Come a Day” (the latter sounds like an appealing combination of Green on Red and Bob Dylan).
Bonus material: five demos on CD1; four demos and one unreleased studio outtake on CD2. Wynn says in the notes that the album was “one of those rare and wonderful records where everything worked out perfectly from start to finish. We recorded 19 songs and every one of them met or exceeded expectations and ultimately made their way to the final record, well, all except one.” That outtake, “Bitch Pants”, is on CD2 in all its glory. Of this, Wynn says that it was “late at night at Wavelab Studio and I was trying to explain this particular pet store item and its unfortunate colloquial name. The others didn’t know what I was talking about so, to paraphrase the ‘70s hit, I had to tell them about bitch pants in a song….Linda gamely tries to interpret my need to impose James Brown on my doggie tale and her laughter at the end is priceless ”there’s your LEAVE OFF track”, she accurately concludes at the end.” It could reasonably be described as a chaotic, but entertaining din.
The CD1 demos are of “Sustain” (with “loopy” bass playing from Wynn), “Southern California Line” (laid down late at night with placeholder nonsense lyrics, and quiet vocals not to wake up Wynn’s roommate), “Morningside Heights” (with Wynn singing Rundgren-esque “oooh’s” to emphasise loneliness and alienation), “Death Valley Rain” (with “nonsense words and cheesy handclaps”), and an instrumental sketch of “There Will Come a Day”.
The CD2 demos include two enjoyable versions of “Watch Your Step” (the second demo with a tougher approach than the first), providing the “tea leaves” for where Wynn went next; an intense instrumental of “Smash Myself to Bits” showing off the relentless bass line which has “wreaked havoc on hand and wrist muscles on more than a few bass players who have had to keep it going for the song’s duration.” There is also a demo of a song that’s not on the album (or anywhere else), “Staten Island”, which Wynn envisaged as “something Bryan Ferry would have sung on one of his early solo albums, dressed in a tux with a loosened tie and an empty martini glass by his side”. The demo is raw and lonesome, with the narrator watching the city lights of Manhattan from an apartment window, anxiously awaiting the return of a wayward lover.
Steve Wynn: The Emusic Singles Collection
Facts and Stats: during 2001, Steve Wynn released a single every month for download at eMusic.com. The 12 tracks were collected and put out on CD as The Emusic Singles Collection by Blue Rose Records in 2001 and on vinyl by Wouldn’t Waste Records in 2018.
On his website, Wynn comments that he remembered “reading all of the amazing stories of bands like the Beatles or The Who writing a song in the morning, recording it in the afternoon and having it stocked in the shelves of record stores by the following afternoon…..But by the time I began making records in 1982 the game had changed. Songs were written, rewritten, recorded as a demo, rewritten again, shopped to labels, demoed again before being rewritten and then recorded “for real” only to sit in limbo for months before finally being released long after the initial moment of inspiration had first hit the songwriter and his bandmates.”
This was why Wynn was so excited by the idea of downloadable music and the opportunity to initiate a “Single of the Month” program with Emusic; “Ideally (and as has been the case in two of the first three instalments) the time from the first bit of inspiration to the availability at a click of a mouse would be no more than one week. A fan in Kansas or Norway or Russia or Tokyo could hear my new song while the ink was still dry from writing the lyrics into my notebook.”
Wynn took this as an opportunity to collaborate, with only three tracks solely written by Wynn; co-writers include Johnette Napolitano (Concrete Blonde), Paco Loco (Australian Blonde, who Wynn describes as “THE indie producer in Spain”), Eric Ambel (the Del Lords), Richard Lloyd (Television), Barbara Manning, James Mastro, Polar, and Gutterball (Armistead Wellford, Bryan Harvey, Johnny Holt, and Stephen McCarthy). There is one cover, “I Gotta Do Things My Way” (Tim Rose/Richard Hussan).
Wynn notes in Complete Lyrics 1982-2017 that “Strange New World” and “The Last One Standing” were re-recorded for Here Comes The Miracles and Momento respectively, but most of the songs never ended up being played again.
What The Critics Thought: after the deluge of press for Here Come the Miracles, there were few critical reviews of The Emusic Singles Collection. Perhaps the reason for this was the nature of the release: downloads, then a CD by mail order only (a later vinyl re-issue was limited to 750 copies, 250 of which were in a limited coloured pressing).
The limited reviews were generally positive. Comes with a Smile magazine said: “You can veritably feel the rush and pulse of execution amongst these tracks, the spontaneous, whirlwind charm that Wynn’s previous solo albums have sometimes lacked (though this year’s Here Come The Miracles shows he can do it without a deadline too.) Wynn’s taken the discrete nature of these songs as an opportunity to collaborate with different musicians (in several different countries) and the result is probably the most eclectic Steve Wynn album yet.”
What We Think: as would be expected due to the standalone nature of each track and the different collaborators, there is a noticeable range and mix of styles. “Down at The Hi-De-Ho” (performed with the Fleshtones) is a raucous ode “to an early ‘80s after-hours speakeasy bar in East Village, the No Say No – an accounting of my fuzzy memories of time spent there, written many years later”. There’s the atmospheric “Last House on The Right” (with Johnette Napolitano), the (initially spoken) narrative of “The Last One Standing” (with Australian Blonde), and the dramatic and moody “The Devil’s Not That Kind” (with James Mastro). At times there is a direct, lo-fi approach to suit some of the material: “At the End of The Day” (with Linda Pitmon) is a simple, fragile ballad, and there’s some home-spun banjo on “The Way I Feel Right Now” (with Barbara Manning). “Shake and Bake” (with Gutterball) is a minimalist vision of melt-down.
Essential tracks: there are many highlights, including the rambunctious “Strange New World” (Wynn sounding at times like Mick Jagger); the upbeat rock and slide guitar of “Milky White” (with Eric Ambel); the classic ‘70s Neil Young rock of “Melinda”; the pulsating groove and falsetto of “Merry-Go-Round” (with Polar); the garage rock of “I Gotta Do Things My Way” (with the Miracle 3 and the Turnettes).
Bonus material: included on the same CD are five demos (one from Studio G) and an outtake “From a Better Place”. In the liner notes, Wynn expresses some dissatisfaction with the outtake (which was written with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and recorded the same day) – “both Eric and Pat Thomas ended up recording versions that nailed it better than I ever did”. Wynn is perhaps being overly self-critical, because he delivers a tough, snarling version of what is a lyrical update of Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” – an indictment of a bad ass rebel who becomes a complacent sell out.
The demos are also worth a listen. Wynn is again self-deprecating about his performance on the melodic “Bait and Switch”, written with journalist Dawn Eden, betting it may have been better with her singing. “Claro Que Si” is an interesting collaboration with Paco Loco, a distinctly Spanish sounding song described by Wynn as “bilingual silliness, a gentleman courting a Spanish woman who answers all of his advances with “claro que si” which translates to “of course”. Sadly she doesn’t know what she’s saying and hilarity ensues.”
“Conditions” is the result of work with another familiar conspirator, Chris Cacavas, and his project Chromo Valdez, and some “fooling around with techno elements and gear”. Wynn took his “killer instrumentals” from a cassette and expanded on them; it’s experimental, but still has warmth.
Then there’s the demo of “Down at the Hi-De-Ho”, which sounds remarkably relaxed in contrast to the intense Studio G demo of “I’m Not Listening”, recorded with the My Midnight band (but, which did not reach the actual studio sessions). The latter eventually wound up on Smack Dab (a band with a 2007 self-titled album featuring Wynn, Linda Pitmon and Paco Loco) and Wynn’s 2014 compilation Sketches in Spain.
Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3: Static Transmission
Facts and Stats: Static Transmission was released in 2003, and is part two of Wynn’s “desert trilogy”. The Miracle 3 have an official billing for the first time; the band is the same as for Here Come the Miracles (Linda Pitmon on drums, Dave Decastro on bass) except for one change – Chris Brokaw is replaced by Jason Victor on guitar (in the liner notes, Victor describes his addition to the band as if he had hit “the big time”, recording with the artist “who in the past decade became probably the most listened to in my collection”). Chris Cacavas continues to add keyboards.
Static Transmission followed Live at Big Mamal (2002), a live CD of a November 2001 Miracle 3 gig in Rome, Italy, released originally only in Italy by Mucchio Extra to accompany their magazine (additional copies were available at shows and selected mail order companies).
2003 was a busy year for Wynn: Blue Rose also released a live record in their Official Bootleg Series, a two CD of a Miracles 3 show in April at Bürgerhaus, Heilbronn, Germany. Blue Rose also put out a live version of Here Comes The Miracles for download from their website.
Wynn refers to Static Transmission as “moody, nervous and dangerous” on his website. Complete Lyrics 1982-2017 suggests that this may have been due to the Twin Towers terror attack of September 11, 2001.
What The Critics Thought: “The ex-Dream Syndicate frontman’s a veritable Ph.D. of timeless rock songcraft, and his strong new record ‘Static Transmission’ is a tuneful, intelligent collision of post-punk fury, stylishly measured balladry and mature rock hook-smithing” (Chicago Tribune); “fans of Wynn’s dark humor and biting guitars won’t want to say goodbye, as long as he keeps producing albums like this” (Tiny Mixtapes). “Static Transmission is 51 minutes of pure fun the way only a very few artists know how to create. Certainly this album is one you will be listening to regularly for years to come” (Guitarnoise.com).
What We Think: Wynn doesn’t disappoint in delivering the up tempo rock he is well known for, including the psychedelic “Candy Machine”, the indie pop of “One Less Shining Star” and a frenetic tribute to Tinseltown, “Hollywood”. However, there is some variation; “Keep It Clean” could be a dark and sinister movie soundtrack. “Maybe Tomorrow” is an affective ballad with strings, “Charcoal Sunset” and “A Fond Farewell” head into electro, “The Ambassador of Soul” swings with a laidback groove, and “What Comes After” is reminiscent of ‘70s John Lennon. “Hidden” track, “If It Was Easy Everybody Would Do It”, makes a good point in the form of a rousing acoustic singalong.
Essential tracks: the tough garage rock of “Amphetamine” with its scorching guitar, and the boisterous “California Style”.
Bonus material: the first European edition of Static Transmission (Blue Rose Records) came as a two CD release at a one CD price. The extra disc contained video footage, and studio outtake bonus tracks (“Riverside”, “Nothing Like Anything” and “Underground”) from the studio session in Tucson. The US version of the album contained eight bonus tracks: the three on the European version plus five further studio outtakes – “Timing,” “Survival Blues,” “Again,” “Benediction” and a version of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper”, again all from the Static Transmission session in Tucson. These are all included here on CD2, together with an unreleased demo of “Underground”.
It’s easy to see why these studio outtakes have been mined so extensively and are repeated here, as they are of all sufficiently high quality to appear on the main album. Standout track is the upbeat “Timing”, but they are all fully worked-out versions; the drama of “Riverside” is enhanced by sophisticated instrumentation; “Survival Blues” and “Again” benefit from great cohesive and expansive playing. “Nothing Like Anything”, “State Trooper” and “Benediction” are more minimalist, with the latter heading off into experimentation.
The lo-fi demo of “Underground”, also known as “Underneath the Underground”, is interesting enough, but the full studio outtake is more enjoyable due to its high energy. However, Wynn says that although he likes the “hyped up, supercharged and confident take” of the outtake, he prefers the “muffled, broken beast” of the demo – “it feels like everything I wasn’t trying to say”.
Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3: …Tick…Tick…Tick
Facts and Stats: released in 2005, this is the third album of the “desert trilogy”. The album was recorded in Tucson in ten days, and co-produced by Craig Schumacher “in his personal playpen of forgotten gear a.k.a. Wavelab Studios”. A live album followed in 2006 (Live Tick, also released as Rätsche Geislingen (Germany) 5.11.2005 in the Blue Rose Bootleg Series), and Wynn and the Miracle 3 also went on to release studio album Northern Aggression in 2010.
In between Static Transmission and …Tick…Tick…Tick, there was a flurry of Wynn-related activity: this included a tribute album to Wynn, From A Man of Mysteries, in 2004 with contributions from familiar names like Chuck Prophet, Willard Grant Conspiracy and Minus 5, a promo only collection, Riding Shotgun, and solo anthology What I Did After My Band Broke Up.
On his website, Wynn describes …Tick…Tick…Tick as the “exclamation point” on the desert trilogy. He says: “I wanted this one to push the boundaries in a different direction. I wanted this album to be one that separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the faint of heart from their wallets. I wanted to go back into the desert and battle the blinding heat with the dizzying neon glare that we would bring from New York. The Arizona haze short-circuited by the frenzy of a New York minute. Louder, harder, sicker, freakier, more hopped up on goofballs than what we had done before. I wanted this record in a way that, well in a way that we had been doing on various stages for the previous few years.” The album’s title is intended to convey the sensation of “post-millennium panic, of a clock ticking and of a furious, unsettling race against time”.
What The Critics Thought: …Tick…Tick…Tick rightfully received a lot of press attention. It was called “a rock ‘n roll pipe bomb wrapped in plastique and dipped in gunpowder” (Metro Times/Detroit); “It’s a frenzied primal scream, a rock ‘n’ roll IED set to blow through today’s postmillennial unease” (Harp Magazine); “The clock is ticking, but Steve Wynn sure doesn’t sound like he’s under any constraints, time or otherwise…The songwriting’s fine, and there’s a bunch of snappy energy all around. Seems like singer-guitarist Wynn is having the time of his life” (Toronto Globe and Mail).
What We Think: this is a full-throttle experience, and the most energetic of the desert trilogy albums. Much of the album is up-tempo, including the distorted garage rock of “Wired” and “All the Squares Go Home”, and the raucous “Wild Mercury”. Even slower paced numbers like “Turning of The Tide” and indie anthem “Freak Star” seem tough and unrelenting. There’s also room for the more experimental: “Killing Me” is ramshackle rockabilly, “The Deep End” is a spacey ballad, and “Your Secret” stretches out into the atmospheric. Wynn says this album was “a direct translation of the sounds and heat and chemistry and tension and occasional release that four people can reach when they’ve shared vans, stages, hotels, thoughts and memories for four years”, and the album certainly reflects a band at the top of their game.
Essential tracks: the snappy garage rock of “Cindy, It Was Always You”, written with “buddy and crime writer extraordinaire” George Pelecanos; the energetic “Bruises”, with what suspiciously sounds like a bagpipe refrain; the almost eight-minute, two-part epic, “No Tomorrow”.
Bonus material: included on the same CD are two demos, two studio outtakes and a song from the closing credits of the film Fever Pitch. That song is “Second Best*, a breezy, but bittersweet track about the frustration of being a fan of a losing baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. Wynn says it’s an “ode to all the losers”, but Red Sox then went on to win four successive championships, for which Wynn sensibly takes full credit.
The studio outtakes are also cinematographic; “Welcome to the New Regime” features smooth backing vocals, and is a political/romantic metaphor of a relationship ending in a “bloodless coup”. “Still Messed Up” goes “full Phil Spector” to tell the tale of a walking disaster attempting a fresh start.
As for the demos, “Killing Me” uses the “entire real estate” of the guitar fretboard, and although it’s a “cool, vibey version”, Wynn says that it does not hit the standard of the released version on the album, “one of my favourite tracks we ever recorded”. “Bring the Magic” closes, and is an unreleased demo from Chris Cacavas’ techno project Chromo Valdez. Mysterious and brooding, it sounds like an outtake from an obscure ‘80s band. Wynn says it’s a rumination on high school days, “cruising along Hollywood Boulevard in my AMC Gremlin on weekend nights and dreaming of connection”. It’s a fitting way to bring Decade to an end, with Wynn surely finding this connection through his music.
Decade summary: This impressive box set will undoubtedly immediately appeal to fans of Wynn and The Dream Syndicate due to the bonus content. For an artist who has already released a remarkable amount of material as “extras” for these albums, Wynn and Thomas have done an admirable job in unearthing yet more previously unheard tracks. Despite Wynn saying in the liner notes that his demos are “a starting point” to spruce up later, here they are often fully realised and mostly in great sound quality, so even casual listeners will be intrigued by them.
Fans should not hesitate to buy this collection, and newcomers to Wynn’s work should consider taking the chance on it for the studio albums alone.
For a completely immersive experience we also suggest you check out the lyrics in the recently published Steve Wynn Complete Lyrics 1982-2017.
Our favourite Decade tracks (Spotify playlist – click here):
“Why”, “Stare It Down”, “The Way You Punish Me” (from Melting in the Dark)
“This Strange Effect”, “Blood from A Stone”, “If My Life Was an Open Book” (from Sweetness and Light)
“In Your Prime”, “Cats and Dogs”, “We’ve Been Hanging Out” (from My Midnight)
“Shades of Blue”, “Crawling Misanthropic Blues”, “Southern California Line”, “Watch Your Step”, “There Will Come a Day” (from Here Come the Miracles)
“Strange New World”, “Milky White”, “Melinda”, “Merry-Go-Round”, “I Gotta Do Things My Way” (from The Emusic Singles Collection)
“Amphetamine”, “California Style” (from Static Transmission)
“Cindy, It Was Always You”, “Bruises”, “No Tomorrow” (From …Tick…Tick…Tick)
Record Store Day 2021
For Record Store Day 2021, head to your local record shop – there will be a double LP “distillation of the best rare and unreleased tracks” on the box set, divided into four thematically-organized sides: (1) unreleased up-tempo band recordings (2) collaborations with others (3) unreleased home demos, and (4) unreleased outtakes and demos from My Midnight. With liner notes from Linda Pitmon, the album will be issued on clear pink vinyl pressing and limited to 1,600 copies worldwide.
Label: Real Gone Music
Release Date: 23 OCT 2020