The songwriter stepped outside the Dream Syndicate mothership for his first two solo albums, originally released in the early ‘90s, which now get the expanded reissue treatment courtesy the archival maestros at Omnivore. (Watch a Wynn concert from 1992 following the text.)
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
In the late eighties, Steve Wynn was best known as leader of the mighty Dream Syndicate, and as such was associated with a certain sound. Though the band had begun to cross its own boundaries before its final record Ghost Stories, the Syndicate was still thought of as one thing: a semi-crazed guitar band that crossed the Velvet Underground with Crazy Horse. But Wynn was more ambitious in his vision, so it was only natural that he would put his latest batch of songs in different settings on Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display, his first solo albums.
They’ve now been reissued and expanded by the Omnivore label.
Originally released on Rhino Records in 1990, Kerosene Man opens up Wynn’s sound with colorful arrangements and thick, even lush instrumentation. Producer Joe Chiccarelli encouraged Wynn to look outside of his circle of friends and consider session cats. It’s a move that might be construed as an attempt to make Wynn’s songs commercial, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Wynn’s writing has always been fairly straightforward – verses, choruses, melodies, hooks – and giving them production that, while hardly slick, wouldn’t sound out of place on the evolving Adult Album Alternative format would hopefully increase his audience. The single “Carolyn,” a tune that went back to the early Syndicate days, goes alt.country before alt.country was cool, while “Something to Remember Me By” enhances its dirty rock with female backup vocals (courtesy an overdubbed Julie Christensen of Divine Horsemen/Leonard Cohen infamy). “Conspiracy of the Heart” (a co-write and duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano) and “Here On Earth As Well” essay gorgeous balladry with easy grace, unleashing a new facet of Wynn’s talent. With its jangling 12-string, crunchy solo and rousing chorus, opener “Tears Won’t Help” posits Wynn as the classic rocker that was always hiding under the Syndicate’s wall of feedback.
None of that’s to say Wynn doesn’t work his more eccentric mojo. “The Blue Drifter” indulges in his Lou Reed side, complete with saxophone coda, “Under the Weather” waits under the streetlight at midnight for a cool slice of noir rock, and the title track rollicks like a great bar band trying to cover Bob Dylan and “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” at the same time. The gnarled “Younger” – guest-starring Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and future Continental Drifter Robert Mache duking it out on guitar – sounds more like an unused Dream Syndicate track than Nü-Steve. But the overall feel of Kerosene Man is smoother and more radio-ready than Wynn’s previous work, though it’s a sheen motivated more by a desire to get a set of strong songs in the vicinity of friendly ears than it is shifting units.
The Omnivore edition comes with a half-dozen bonus tracks, all recorded either in clubs or on the radio with his band at the time. A mix of originals and covers, the bonus cuts boast aggressive takes on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Graveyard Train” and Bob Dylan’s “The Groom’s Still Waiting At the Altar” and an absolutely molten version of “Younger.”
Wynn quickly followed up Kerosene Man with Dazzling Display, made with the same core team and originally issued in 1992. With a bigger budget, extra musicians and a year’s worth of experience on the road as a solo artist, Wynn was able to make what’s probably the most diverse and colorful record of his career. The first two cuts tell it: alongside the same studio band as on the last record, the bright, groovy pop of “Drag” features Three O’Clock/Mary’s Danish guitarist Louis Gutierrez, a horn section and a small army of backing vocalists, while the frisky folk/pop of “Tuesday” includes Gutierrez, Peter Buck, John Wesley Harding, string players and, on backing vocals, Flo & Eddie (the Turtles’ Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman) and the Psycho Sisters (the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson and the Cowsills’ Susan Cowsill – soon to join Wynn guitarist Robert Mache and bassist Mark Walton in the Continental Drifters). It looks excessive on the page, but by the grace of Wynn’s tasteful and efficient writing, his contagious enthusiasm for taking advantage of the studio environment and the skill of the players themselves, these top-heavy creations don’t fall on their faces.
Though the number of musicians on the rest of the tracks rarely reaches the same levels, they’re still presented in busier arrangements and shinier production than even Kerosene Man. But that works like a charm, suiting this particular set of Wynn songs well. The glittery pop of “Dandy in Disguise” and “When She Comes Around,” propulsive psychedelia of “Grace” and angry rock of “405” and the title track find their melodies buttressed by the arrangements, rather than obscured, and Wynn sounds confident and engaged amidst all the industry. Above all, it sounds like a natural evolution from the debut. Hardcore fans of The Days of Wine and Roses might blanch at first, but anyone following the road from 1982 to 1992 will be satisfied.
As with Kerosene Man, the Omnivore version includes six in-concert bonus cuts, recorded with Wynn’s touring band. The mini-set boasts a lovely “Conspiracy of the Heart,” with Johnette Napolitano reprising her studio role, and a hard-rocking version of Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble” as highlights.
Wynn continued exploring this pop-friendly direction in later records, but it’s on these long out-of-print gems that he truly signaled his desire to never be hemmed in by expectations, his own or others. Kerosene Man and Dazzling Display are well worth rediscovery.
Photo by Greg Allen