Hot on the heels of the Dream Syndicate‘s radically psychedelic, echoingly haunting new album The Universe Inside, bandleader Steve Wynn has totally flipped the script with his spare yet no less hauntingly intimate new release, Solo Acoustic Vol. 1. Beyond the Dream Syndicate’s guitar duels and increasingly vast panoramas, Wynn has toured solo acoustic on and off since his teenage days in the 80s. Yet, outside of side one of the legendary/obscure Straight to the Swapmeet ep, there’s never been a solo acoustic Wynn album until now.
You could call this his Lightnin’ Hopkins record. The legendary Texas bluesman would stop into a studio or radio station in between gigs along the highway, put down some tracks and sell the master for gas money. Wynn, a big Bill Callahan fan, went into the artist formerly known as Smog’s favorite Austin studio late last year and got a grand total of 26 songs from his vast back catalog in the can in a single marathon eight-hour session. This initial volume is up at Bandcamp, and there’s another on the way.
There are plenty of “so THAT’s what this song is all about” moments here: the devil is always in the details in Wynn’s noir-tinged tableaux, and sometimes that can get subsumed in the roar of the guitars. Wynn is also as interesting to listen to on acoustic as he is on electric. In fact, some of the spare, dusky versions here are arguably better than the originals.
That could easily be said for the catchy, vamping take of Manhattan Fault Line, which opens the album. It’s one of the few straightforwardly autobiographical numbers in Wynn’s book: a lifetime Los Angeleno, he was 34 when he left town for New York with his tail between his legs…and never looked back.
The version of Merrittville isn’t the only quiet one out there: the slow, watery menace of the Dream Syndicate’s performance on the Live at Raji’s record is an icy gem. Even the name of this town has a crushing sarcasm: what a horrible place for an irrepressible bon vivant to be on the run from rednecks and bible bangers!
Anthem is a real revelation, its desperate narrator still awake and staring at the screen as all the channels on tv are signing off. There’s also more than a hint of desperation in the version of Love Me Anyway here.
Similarly, the doomed narrative of Like Mary stands out even more than in the original, Wynn’s acoustic guitar running through a vintage amp with just a tinge of tremolo, heightening the Lynchian ambience. HIs terse, incisive picking ramps up the mystery in Morningside Heights, while this solo version of Carry a Torch has a welcome, unexpected if somewhat muted musical savagery to match the lyrics.
Freak Star, one of Wynn’s most careeningly evocative songs from the past ten years or so, is one of the album’s best tunes; “Something told me commonsense was not a game you play,” he reflects. The real rarity here is the cynical, Highway 61 Dylan-ish Is There Something I Should Know. The obvious choicefor this record is a deliciously twisted take of My Old Haunts, Wynn switching out the original’s blithely sarcastic oldtimey swing atmosphere for a much more pointed, low-key character study.
Layer By Layer is the most overtly Lou Reed-influenced number here: it”s not clear to what degree this is about religion, or surveillance, or both. There’s also an inventively strummed, brief solo take of Crawling Misanthropic Blues and a terse version of Shades of Blue, although without that bittersweet Dream Syndicate quote on the intro that literally takes your breath away – if you know Wynn’s turbulent history, anyway. Is it fair to pick an album of old songs as one of the best of the year? They sure don’t sound old here.