Crime Fiction... With GUITARS!
Steve Wynn's Riding Shotgun

Review by Kevin Burton Smith

Okay, Riding Shotgun is NOT a CD loaded with songs about private eyes. Still, with its pulpy artwork and the promotional name-dropping of every hard-boiled crime writer from Dashiell Hammett to James Ellroy, you don't have to be a great detective to dope out who the intended audience for this limited-edition collection of Wynn's recent noir-tinged work is.

Yeah, I'm talking to you, bubba...

But at least this time there's some truth in them thar blurbs – Wynn, the main man behind 1980s post-punk group The Dream Syndicate, is a sharp and unusually literate songwriter, creating hard-bitten short stories and tough-minded impressionistic vignettes that sets the cock-eyed existentialist angst of Dutch Leonard or James M. Cain's small-time losers against the big-time dreams of Springsteen and the bruised romanticism of Raymond Chandler, all wrapped up in sweeping guitars à la Neil Young and a backbeat as unrelenting as original sin.

And it's that generosity of spirit that's a big part of this disc's appeal, culled from Wynn's solo work of the last few years. No matter how dark and bleak these tales of people circling the drain, trapped by fate and their own worst instincts may be, this is no low-key monologue of self-pity warbling over minor chords and some snoozy muted sax moaning off in the night -- this is rock'n'roll writ large, bold and defiant, with just a dash of hope tossed into the mix. Even at their most forlorn, there's a riff or a drum beat or a tossaway line in these songs that suggests that, maybe, just maybe, in a town full of losers, there's a way to pull out of here and win.

Or at least survive.

Maybe.

*****

True confession: I wasn't even all that familiar with Wynn's music, or that of The Dream Syndicate before Riding Shotgun came sailing in over the transom. But the cover art and packaging, as well as frequent mentions in the work of D.C. crimewriter George Pelecanos (who would later co-write with Wynn) and the glowing online recommendations from the trench coat boys at Rara-Avis had already softened me up, leaving me pretty much a sitting duck, anyway.

But I never expected to be blown away like this -- the sucker's been spinning in the car and at home ever since. There's a surprising musical and lyrical richness and depth in Wynn's music that bears repeated listening, with every spin revealing another memorable detail that just jabs into your brain like a piece of shrapnel -- and is just about as easy to get out.

Like his good buddy George, a kindred spirit if there ever was one, it's clear Wynn is one guitar slinger who has kept his ears wide open over the years, not content to calcify in some musical dinosaurland. There are as many musical echoes here as there are musical callouts in Pelecanos' books. A listen to Riding Shotgun is often like playing a game of spot-the-influence. Listen, and you'll hear echoes (possibly even unintentional) of everyone from the wide-open "Big Music" of Mike Scott's The Waterboys and the drone-and-buzz of Dinosaur Jr. to the expansive jingle-jangle pop of The Byrds or Big Star to the claustrophobic, scraped-raw deadpan poetic vision of the usual noir suspects such as Lou Reed (of course) Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen, tempered with the gonzo world squint of the late Warren Zevon and the sheer rock and roll mojo of old soldiers like Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Imagine Chander as a Clash City Rocker, and you're almost home.

But the truly amazing thing about Riding Shotgun is that throughout the stylistically varied musical and literary tones and vibes of this collection.

Wynn ultimately ends up presenting a unique, original (and surprisingly consistent) narrative voice, one that jumps out of this wicked gumbo of street smart callouts and buzzy, anxious multi-layered electric guitars. That this album is an odds-and-ends sampler, a shill to current don't-wanna-hear-it-radio -- and not a carefully planned coherent artistic statement -- is even more amazing.

* * * * *

Of course, because it is a sampler, Wynn gets to pick and choose some of his best, and although long-time fans may quibble with some of his omissions (where the hell's Charcoal Sunset?), few will argue with the inclusions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest portion of the songs are drawn from Wynn's acclaimed 2001 double-CD masterpiece, Here Come The Miracles, but there are also fine cuts from Static Transmission (2002) and My Midnight (1999) as well as a few hard-to-find demos and other goodies.

The twitchy, kinetic Amphetamine kicks off the set, a turbo-charged tale of a man with nothing to lose, tearing down his own personal Highway to Hell, and not particularly giving a damn who he takes with him. The blacktop he's claimed as his own is Southern California's notorious 101, and it's just the first of several geographical references to So Cal and the desert.

Wynn, a Santa Monica native, may call New York City his home now, but the Golden State and its endless freeways, desert landscape and especially its unceasing mythology as ground zero for big, busted dreams figures prominently in his songs. The thumping Southern California Line, (propelled by an awesome primal beat and great dual guitar interplay) asks if you're ready to be saved, but don't be expecting the Salvation Army to be covering it anytime soon. Meanwhile, Hollywood, whose crunchy opening guitar riff recalls Fly Like an Eagle-era Steve Miller, warns that "people don't know when they've got it good." Its narrator is a Hollywood has-been still brooding over the fact that he once "scratched his name on the tree of history" but got a little "messed up back in 1983."

But if Hollywood is all self-pity and mule-headed stubbornness, the swirling, pedal-to-the-metal driving song Death Valley Rain ratchets up the dread and defiance, as the lead character boasts of "riding against the minutes/outside the city limits." The loose n' lazy echo-laden funk of Topanga Canyon Freaks suggests an unexpected (and unwelcome) visit by the Robert Mitchum preacher character in Night of the Hunter (or perhaps Charles Manson and his band of murderous disciples) coming to your doorstep to testify.

The resigned and hard-earned optimism of Sustain, a driving ode to survival and holding power, spotlights world-weariness meeting its match: "Only the pain remains/Sustain, sustain, sustain..."

It's good advice, a creed of dogged determination that many of the characters on this album seem to cling to, in the absence of anything else. Smash Myself To Bits features a thick slab of snarling guitars and flirts with self-destruction, and the galloping Nothing But the Shell does similar things with dissipation, while the hushed, deadpan delivery of Blackout sounds like John Lennon filtered through the Velvet Underground, detailing an ominous (Legal? Ethical? Moral?) day of reckoning.

Reckoning, after all, is a big deal in Wynn's work, as is the quest for some sort of at least temporary salvation. The cautionary damnation tale of The Devil's Not That Kind, with it's water-dripping bass line, on one hand, may be just another of Wynn's great late night driving songs, but it boasts an almost perfect Dylanesque kiss-off line: "I'd wish you the best, but the devil's not that kind."

But perhaps my favourite is the chilling (and hard-to-find) James River Incident, that chronicles the fallout "after the cops and the reports have all gone home" of an unspecified act of violence from the point of view of an innocent bystander who's "tired of explaining myself against the wall." "I just don't wanna hear that garbage anymore," he bitches, but there's something in the way Wynn spits out the line that suggests the narrator may not be all that innocent after all. "The dead can rest for ever more/If the creek don't rise again." he concludes, until letting the final chilling punch line slip in like a shiv as the song builds to a crescendo of wailing guitars, paranoia and fatalistic bravado. "Let it rise," he sneers.

But there's light at the end of this gloom-and-doom tunnel -- Wynn's too sharp a songwriter to hide for too long in a cloak of cheap-but trendy-cynicism. He ends the set with an unabashedly open-hearted one-two punch of There Will Come a Day and A Fond Farewell, the respective closers drawn from the Here Come the Miracles and Static Transmission albums. The former is a poppy, Clash-like anthem to hard-fought optimism, while the latter, with its churchy organ opening, is a vaguely hymn-like after-hours middle-aged reflection on a rock'n'roll life, a solid companion to The Replacements' Here Comes a Regular.

* * * * *

Yeah, I have a few minor gripes. With so much thematic emphasis placed on lyrical content, it seems almost criminal to deny us a lyric sheet. And where, oh where, are the musician or even songwriting credits? Linda Pitmon's (or whoever's) rock-steady drumming and Chris Brokaw's endlessly inventive killer guitar work (or is it Steve's? Or someone else?) deserve special acclaim, but there's no mention anywhere of who played what.

But those are small quibbles, at best. Fact is, since Riding Shotgun, I've been on an enjoyable tear, slowly discovering Wynn's sprawling back catalogue, and I'm here to report, ladies and gentlemen, that his range far exceeds just this noir schtick. Although, as the narrator sings in James River Incident, "ain't it funny how tragedy brings out the best in everyone."

Love and hate, winning and losing, salvation and damnation, it's all here. As the fatalistic speed freak tearing down the 101 in Amphetamine might say, "this is music to live by until the day you die."

Amen.

* * * * *

Riding Shotgun
Steve Wynn
Bug Music, February 2004

The Songs (and original source)

Amphetamine (Static Transmission)
Sustain (Here Come The Miracles)
The Devil's Not That Kind (previously unreleased)
Death Valley Rain (Here Come The Miracles)
Topanga Canyon Freaks (Here Come The Miracles)
Nothing But The Shell (My Midnight )
James River Incident (Shelley's Blues, Part. 2)
My Midnight (My Midnight )
Southern California Line (Here Come The Miracles)
Hollywood (Static Transmission)
Blackout (Here Come The Miracles)
The Last One Standing
Smash Myself To Bits (Here Come The Miracles)
There Will Come A Day (Here Come The Miracles)
A Fond Farewell (Static Transmission)

You can buy this CD (maybe) at http://stevewynn.net.

Review respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith, June 2004.


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