Sometimes at odds with his fans’ desires, Steve Wynn has consistently followed his own muse and vision. His artistic singularity has generated an ample mixture of reward and frustration over the years, and what’s rewarding for one listener can prove equally frustrating for another. Oddly enough, for all his stubborn resolve to forge his own unique path, Steve Wynn has become one of the great collaborators in rock and roll. From his work with Gutterball, Miracle 3, and, most recently, the Baseball Project, Wynn has oftentimes been at his best when sharing the spotlight. Sketches in Spain adds to that argument.
The album title is a wry reference to Miles Davis’ famous Sketches of Spain. Even the colors of Wynn’s album cover evoke those of Davis’ homage to Spanish music. But the emphasis in Wynn’s album title should be placed upon the in, because this album is not, as was Davis’, an incorporation of Spanish musical traditions into his own well-established style. Rather, Wynn’s title simply describes where he recorded it. There are musical elements introduced here that are new to Wynn’s sonic palette, but they are anchored more broadly in European dance and new wave. While a few songs do feature Spanish horns, they are used sparingly, and there are no flamenco-like guitar flourishes to be found here.
Sketches in Spain collects two albums Wynn recorded and released in that country between 2001 and 2009. The first, the nine track Memento, was recorded with popular Spanish band Australian Blond. Eight years later, Wynn joined that album’s producer, Paco Loco, and longtime collaborator Linda Pitmon to form Smack Dab, releasing an eponymous 10 track album. Neither album was released in the U.S. at the time, but Omnivore’s release collects all 19 cuts, with the latter, more immediately accessible album sequenced first.
Album opener “I’m Not Listening” leads off strong and evokes Wynn’s early ‘90s work with his Gutterball crew. A deep bass riff guides listeners into a loose and driving kiss off song. “Free Love” features backwards guitars and long-held, languid notes reminiscent of Wynn’s Paisley Underground compatriots Rain Parade. “Mine has been a slide of biblical proportions, and size / Like the Whore of Babylon, but only half as nice” Wynn sings in “My Cross to Bear”, offering a rambling sequence of patented Wynn couplets that should become a live sing-along favorite. “Smack Dab”, where Wynn trades vocals with Pitmon, who wrote this song’s lyrics and sings lead on the earlier track “Super 8”, wittily updates Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”, contemplating how one little sin can create an inextricable tangle of association. The eight minute long “Lavender Foam” closes out the first of the two albums collected on the CD. These 10 songs comprise as strong a collection of music as any Wynn has recorded since fronting Dream Syndicate.
The nine songs comprising Wynn’s album with Australian Blonde do not flow with the consistency of the Smack Dab cuts. While still a collection of strong songs, there is a kitchen sink approach to instrumentation and production on these songs that can be occasionally jarring. “King of Riverside Park” features accordion, banjo figures prominently in “OTB”, and “Black is Black” finds accompaniment through an oompa band. Leaving the intense and contemplative guitar, piano, and drum of “Lavender Foam” for the sudden “Sha la las” of The Free Design-inspired “Suddenly” is like jumping from Tom Verlaine to Tom Jones. It is, nonetheless, a fun song and Wynn sings it straight, ultimately presenting a side of himself he has never previously exposed in song. Part of this occasional sense of displacement is a result of the recording process used for the album. As Wynn explains, he and Loco exchanged tapes through the mail, and Loco would then work with the band to build a track around Wynn’s performance. Singer and band didn’t physically meet until practicing for the tour in support of the album. It really does work more often than it doesn’t, and Pitmon even gets another lead vocal opportunity in “On the Town”, a delightful end of the work week song that evokes Mo Tucker’s sing-songy contributions to the Velvet Underground catalog.
Album, and collection, closer “Sometime Before I Die” offers an answer to any who would criticize Wynn’s choices, here or anywhere: “These are the vows I choose to make / Make damn sure that when I take my final breath / I won’t be counting my mistakes.” Omnivore has done American audiences a great service in making these recordings available. The two albums collected here are representative of Wynn’s overall career and fitting additions to that oeuvre. That career can perhaps best be described as a beautiful mess and Wynn owes neither explanation nor apology for the choices he has made. “I’ll make a toast to the flesh, and not a ghost,” he sings. I clink glasses to that.