For all of Steve Wynn’s indie rock legend, it’s been surprising that his solo career hasn’t really taken off until recently. As a member of the Dream Syndicate — the cream of Los Angeles’ fabled “Paisley Underground” scene that was to the ’80s what Big Star and the Velvet Underground were to the ’70s and ’60s, respectively — Wynn established himself as a first-class songwriter in the simple-yet-profound tradition of Lou Reed, Neil Young and post-Beatles John Lennon, yet maintained an ear for balancing his pop sensibility with artful dissonance. Unfortunately, Wynn spent most of the ’90s wandering from road to studio and back again without assembling a band that could realize his vision with the grandiose sensitivity of the Syndicate.
But all of that changed when he hit the road in support of his last record, 2001’s criminally overlooked Here Come the Miracles. His touring band — drummer Linda Pitmon (formerly of the Minneapolis band Zuzu’s Petals), bassist Dave DeCastro and phenomenal guitarist Jason Victor — updated the Dream Syndicate lineup to bring Wynn’s songs to life, even incorporating a second set of the Syndicate’s classic Days of Wine and Roses LP in its entirety on the latter half of the tour. Wisely, Wynn brought the same group together (under the name The Miracle 3) to record his latest CD Static Transmission in the same Tucson, Arizona studio that hosted his last Miracles sessions — obviously the man knows when he’s got a good thing going.
Though it’s definitely more raw and spontaneous than its predecessor, Static Transmission shares the same sense of imbalance as Here Come the Miracles; the only difference being that it was a little easier to overlook in the context of a double album. Perhaps the dreary choice of a leadoff track throws off the mood from the beginning — “What Comes After” could’ve come straight from Plastic Ono Band or Imagine, complete with the slightly out-of-phase vocal tracks that Lennon hid behind on most of his solo work — it’s a good song, but not the most powerful opening statement. The next three songs continue in a similarly uncertain vein: “Candy Machine” attaches B-grade double entendre to a Revolver-esque psychedelic groove, “The Ambassador of Soul” dabbles in fairly average jangle-pop, and “Keep It Clean” is a dead ringer for David Essex’s “Rock On” that only redeems itself with the edgy guitar drone sections between the verses.
The disc finally picks up momentum with the appropriately titled “Amphetamine”, an old-school Yo La Tengo-style rocker that highlights Wynn and Victor’s outstanding guitar interplay; it’s easily the best track on the entire disc. “California Style” extends the focus on the two guitarists’ empathy even further, with one’s feedback oscillating around the other’s melodic lines during the instrumental bridge sections — if the song itself weren’t such a forced representation of its title, it’d be on par with “Amphetamine”‘s adrenaline rush. But from there it’s back to ups and downs for the album’s second half, with a couple more ballads (“Maybe Tomorrow” definitely being the better of the two) mixing it up with the uptempo tracks. Of these, “Hollywood” is the only real standout, with its arrogant swagger anchored by DeCastro’s funky bass and Chris Cacavas’ (new to the Miracle 3 for this record) distant clavinet.
The record ends on an uplifting note though, thanks to the hidden track “If It Was Easy Everybody Would Do It”, a raucous acoustic jam that underscores just how fun the whole thing is to listen to. And that’s the key element to appreciating this disc — because the music makes up for whatever it may lack in transcendental force with sheer joy and passion. Besides, Wynn and the Miracle 3 are one of those bands that are simply better live, so if Static Transmission means they’ll be coming through town anytime soon, then that’s reason enough to celebrate its release.