After moving halfway across the continent this summer, a new friend eagerly played me some songs from his then-unnamed band. I sat in an old basement chair, pretending to enjoy the disc of rough instrumentals blaring out of his cheap stereo. He boasted about the variety of influences in his group, from grindcore to industrial to heartland rock. But what snaked out of the speakers was an awkward smattering of melodic snippets that may have sounded individually promising, but came off collectively confusing. Guitarists know it’s beyond frustrating to sit in that chair, plugged into a humming amp, waiting for something to come that sounds like it hasn’t been done a thousand rhymes before. Is it true, the ears worried, have all the good riffs been used up?
Steve Wynn may have been hiding them all for himself and current players Miracle 3, using the ho-hum front of rock ‘n roll’s oldest combination — two guitars, bass, and drums — for the 13 songs making up Northern Aggression. Sticking to those types of six-string guns befits Wynn, who traffics in a kind of lighthearted bitter humor too relate-able to be quirky, but still very slightly oddball. Every genre needs its crank. Rap has Ice Cube. Rock has Neil Young, and Tom Waits gets the genre on weekends and holidays. Wynn isn’t indie’s resident Tea Partier, although front porch soliloquies like “I’ve been swattin’ at the flies around my skull” make a valid argument.
The Steve Wynn on Northern Aggression is more like rock’s happy-go-lucky neighbor, and also closer to the one fans can see live than other albums would suggest (here, he sings “I feel hands all around me/Walk with me”. Anytime, dude). At a Baseball Project show in Hoboken last August, he seemed the happiest to chat with fans after the second encore flamed out, almost grateful that someone would care to converse with him after the highlights (a crowd-parting Mike Mills, for one) left the audience drained. Your singer isn’t supposed to be the most down to earth guy in the band, but then again, Wynn isn’t an ordinary singer.
Does a 50-year-old who still tours by van have the voice to bring it all together? No worries there. Wynn’s got a great snarl that seems to just be finding its place, like the high school band nerd turned prom king turned twisted bad boy — part clairvoyant Lou Reed, part gasoline-huffing Tom Petty. Sometimes, it finds the tune, but only if absolutely necessary. It is especially nasal on the boiling, feedback-drenched opener “Resolution”, a stormy rocker that kicks like a grizzled Nirvana outtake.
The man’s been in so many bands, he’s almost got a discography for all seasons. If Wynn’s been on about America’s pastime the past two years, making balmy summer garage-pop to follow Dream Syndicate’s sonic illustration of spring (harshness thawing into something more tolerable), Northern Aggression is a fall record that takes things to the gridiron for an emotional scrimmage as vivid as the leaves. “Resolution” is beefy and masculine, while “Colored Lights” crackles with scattered buzz, but it’s not all sinewy edge: a walk in the park under autumn’s blinding sun, “We Don’t Talk About It” rings out like the stuff of Dream Syndicate’s basement days with the touch of humor that underscores the Baseball Project’s trivia geek instincts.
“Look into my eyes and you can see I’m on the mend”, he promises near the end of Northern Aggression, even if he hadn’t much to change in the first place. If the music sounds like a mended version of something familiar, his lyrics, which avoid both mundane description and oblique abstraction, are a natural continuation of that. Wynn stitches up worn clichés, vowing “everything that rises must resolve” instead of simply saying what goes up must come down.
“Consider the Source” is a bit more down home with its buttery keyboards and Wynn singing from an unfulfilled bedroom view — “there’s a spot underneath the marital bed”. On the surface, “The Death of Donny B” sounds like another baseball museum exhibit, but it’s a creeping soul track that sounds like it came back in time from the ruins of a Motown studio, and a relief from a mostly great album that, every so often, threatens to run itself into too deep a groove.
Wynn may be married to mean-but-modest drummer Linda Pitmon, but on record, he’s devoted to the two-guitars-bass-drums lineup as the perfect amalgamation for knocking out home runs. Scrapbook glories like Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses drowned his songs in raw noise, but as many singers do in middle age, Wynn has achieved balance along with his new riffs. Let’s hope he finds some more down in his basement for the follow-up.