“Post-punk” has always been more of a chronological term than an aesthetic one — when it comes to the actual music, “pre-punk” might be a better tag for the way many Reagan-era bands chose to cast new light and darkness on the classic rock and seminal obscurities of the ’60s and early ’70s. Case in point: Steve Wynn. As the leader of Los Angeles psychedelic-cum-feedback blues combo Dream Syndicate, the singer/guitarist looked primarily to influences like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and (definitively) the Velvet Underground. What he took from punk had more to do with attitude, noisy energy, abyss-skirting emotions and musical riskiness — qualities, of course, present in the best rock’n’roll of any scene, era or sub-genre.
Since Dream Syndicate dissolved in ’89, Wynn has traced the same kind of edges, his continuing spirit of mutable classicism propped up by a further emphasis on crafty songwriting and stout production contexts. Wynn began work on Kerosene Man immediately after the Dream Syndicate split, but many of the songs seem to chronicle a breakup of a more personal nature. He rounded up a passel of guest contributors (to name, believe it or not, just a handful: bassist Fernando Saunders, sax player Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, former Divine Horsemen vocalist Julie Christensen, Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and drummers D.J. Bonebrake and Denny Fongheiser) for a varied, song-strong exercise in snappy guitar-pop (“Carolyn,” “Killing Time”), narrative mood pieces (“The Blue Drifter,” “Anthem”) and unsettling ballads (the vengeful “Something to Remember Me By” and the lovely “Conspiracy of the Heart”). It’s a darn good record of multiple resonances — some listeners might come away remembering the hummable hooks, others the insinuating shards of guitar, still others the doleful lyricism. The adjacent EP packages the wordplay-driven bar-room rock of the title cut with four tracks from various radio sessions, including covers of Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” and Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble.”
Dazzling Display is exactly that, though not always in a good way. Sometimes the ambitious arrangements — horns and strings and layered harmonies and track-upon-track of guitar ornamentation — achieve a bright, swollen grandiosity. Elsewhere, returning producer Joe Chiccarelli’s work is merely slick, which hardly seems appropriate for a record of pulpy character sketches (separate songs are devoted to Hubert Selby Jr. and James Ellroy). The material is equally inconsistent — many songs just don’t get where they’re supposed go, or never leave the starting blocks. They are, however, balanced by high points like the infectious, Beatlesque “Tuesday,” the rolling carnival of “Dandy in Disguise” and a suitably bizarre duet with Napolitano on Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde” (putting Wynn a few years ahead of the hipness curve — plus he did the English translation himself!).
Wynn pared things back considerably after that, turning his attention to the all-star garage band Gutterball while also co-producing Fluorescent, a spare, solid exercise in songwriting (especially lyrics) that doesn’t quite take off. It’s an objectively good record of terse, rootsy guitar rock, lacking in either flash or roughness — “tasteful” would be the appropriate word for the perky, finely wrought road story “Collision Course” and the sweetly restrained “Wedding Bells.” Other tracks (the appropriately foreboding “That’s Why I Wear Black,” the country-inflected “The Sun Rises in the West”) walk a fine line between subtle and prosaic. The fine supporting cast this time out includes Gelb, John Wesley Harding, Victoria Williams and several Continental Drifters. Check out Wynn’s singing on “Look Both Ways” for one of the most entertainingly blatant Dylan imitations ever. Take Your Flunky and Dangle, mostly outtakes from Fluorescent and Kerosene Man, is a better record, with a bunch of loose, rollicking songs, a real campfire-band feel to the music and some of Wynn’s warmest, most liquid vocals.
Wynn finally realized long-standing plans to use the band Come — guitarists Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw, bassist Sean O’Brien and drummer Arthur Johnson — as his backing group on Melting in the Dark. Although something of a return to the Dream Syndicate’s savage guitar-frenzy, the album is flightier, with dry, laconic vocals, jauntily aggressive tempos and a joyous garage-crud vibe that suggests it was a lot of fun to make. The vocal pairing of Wynn and Zedek is spookily effective; with his dramatic songs anchoring the three-guitar sparks, you’d never know the music was being made by a band that can be so brooding and gothic on its own. Come subsequently lost O’Brien and Johnson (which makes Melting in the Dark that lineup’s final work together), and Wynn put together a short-lived touring band with Zedek, Brokaw, Gutterball’s Armistead Welliford and erstwhile Dream Syndicate drummer Dennis Duck.
Advertisements for Myself is a useful compilation, while The Suitcase Sessions is a limited-edition set that includes covers of “Draggin’ the Line” (Tommy James), “Tighten Up” (Archie Bell) and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” (Dream Syndicate).
Wynn made Sweetness and Light with a new band consisting of bassist Welliford, drummer Linda Pitmon (ex-Zuzu’s Petals/Splendora) and keyboardist Joe McGinty (ex-Psychedelic Furs). Between the uninspired original material and the band working to locate its innate sound, the songs don’t snap or roar or bite. Wynn’s lyrics are typically literate and revealing, poetic even, but beyond the title track and the tremolo-throbbing “Ghosts,” few of the melodies or arrangements here are as noteworthy. On the plus side, Wynn rips into the Kinks’ “This Strange Effect” with a psychedelic fervor the original never had (Marvin Gaye’s “That’s the Way Love Is” doesn’t fare as well), but otherwise this is not much of an album.
My Midnight is a lot better, redolent of atmosphere and assurance. Brokaw returns to sharpen the guitar attack, and Pitmon and McGinty are back, but bassist Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu/Bob Mould/They Might Be Giants) takes over from Welliford. Wynn colors his singing with a variety of dramatic flourishes to match the diversity of the styles essayed here: low-key with a little bit of soul-leaning horns and guitar in “Cats and Dogs,” the stately Velvetized drama (with a gripping Brokaw solo that recalls Richard Lloyd in Television) of “Mandy Breakdown,” the harp-roaring “Nothing but the Shell,” the driving romanticism of “Out of This World” and the cool noir lounge sound of “We’ve Been Hanging Out,” a duet with Pitmon. There’s even a weather-bitten sea chantey (“The Mask of Shame”). Solid. Pick of the Litter is a limited-edition disc of outtakes from My Midnight.
The two-disc Here Come the Miracles, recorded in Tucson, is the work of Wynn, Pitmon and Brokaw with new bassist Dave DeCastro and old LA scene pal Chris Cacavas on keyboards (and co-production). The occasional distortion on Wynn’s voice and the rough surge of the guitar rock draws attention from the essence of the songwriting, which is tougher, too: this is an album of feeling as much as substance. One-on-one love songs are downplayed in favor of the vengeful “There Will Come a Day,” “Shades of Blue,” the suffering of “Sustain” and “Crawling Misanthropic Blues.” Recording in the Southwest seems to have sparked Wynn to consider the entire country, from “Morningside Heights” to “Topanga Canyon Freaks,” “Death Valley Rain” to “Southern California Line.” 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. Most disappointingly, the promising pulse-quickening garagey instrumental that begins “Smash Myself to Bits” gives way to a halfhearted vocal that spoils it. The quality is there, the clear-headed judgment (a common affliction of double-albums) isn’t.
The best impulses of Here Come the Miracles form the basis of the totally kickass …tick…tick…tick, made with a trio dubbed the Miracle 3 — Pitmon, DeCastro and new guitarist Jason Victor. The album is faster, louder and looser, with an urgent edge, a jaunty feel and consistently meaningful and moving songs. “Cindy, It Was Always You,” the first fruits of an intriguing collaboration with noir crime author George Pelecanos (who provided the lyrics), doesn’t so much send Wynn off on a new direction (it’s about a lover, not a fighter; the album in general is a return to intimacy) as refresh his instincts. Although again recorded in Tucson, …tick…tick…tick sounds nothing like Here Come the Miracles. “Wired” is a ferocious opener; “Freak Star” is gently fuzzed up lonely pop with a subliminal English feel; “Killing Me” corrupts cow-punk with feedback, organ (Victor) and a hammering tom-tom pattern by Pitmon; and the bizarre but instantly lovable “Bruises” paraphrases, intentionally or otherwise, the Who’s “I’m a Boy.” Other highlights in an album that gains momentum include “The Deep End,” “Wild Mercury,” “All the Squares Go Home” and the epic “No Tomorrow.”