Miracle Worker

Former Dream Syndicate leader Steve Wynn puts the ghost of his old band to rest with the finest album of his career

Input from these multiple sources helped generate the kind of welcome creative tension that the singer was seeking. Throughout, Miracles benefits from the friendly tug of war being waged between Wynn's ideas and the players' interpretations of the material.

A perfect example of this occurs with "Morningside Heights." Though the finished track exudes a bittersweet Beach Boys vibe -- a languid, loungey mutation of "Surfs Up" and "'Til I Die" -- Wynn's original concept for the piece was set closer to Detroit than Doheney.

"In my mind I was trying to write a Motown soul song like 'Ooh, Baby, Baby' by the Miracles," he says. "But everybody came to the song -- like [Calexico's] John Convertino playing vibes -- with more of that Pet Sounds thing in mind. And I didn't try to force them the other way. That kind of thing makes for a more interesting record. You can't just pinpoint the influences."

Steve Wynn: "Most of my heroes were cult artists anyway."
Linda Pitmon
Steve Wynn: "Most of my heroes were cult artists anyway."
"I don't want to stop," says Wynn of his lifelong musical journey.
Giulio Molfese
"I don't want to stop," says Wynn of his lifelong musical journey.

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Elsewhere, "Death Valley Rain" -- a song Wynn wrote after listening to the Feelies landmark Crazy Rhythms -- mutates from college-rock pastiche to classic rock romp, thanks to Cacavas' baritone guitar, which turns the tune into a kissin' cousin of Elvis' "Burning Love."

A veteran of projects ranging from Richard Buckner to the Friends of Dean Martinez, co-producer/engineer Craig Schumacher -- who also steps in with lap steel, harmonica and vocals -- deserves equal credit for the multicolored collage of sounds.

"Craig works differently than most producers. Instead of thinking in terms of a batch of tracks, he works on each song individually -- like they were a different character," says Wynn. "And he's very hands-on. He gets in there and throws up different mikes and different amps for each track, to give them a unique identity."

The full production team of Wynn, Cacavas and Schumacher forge an atmosphere so thick that, at times, you almost have to brush it away. The album possesses a sonic flair that delights in conjuring visceral imagery, whether it's grafting a ghostly choir of vocals onto the Burundi beat of "Strange New World," creating the spooky momentum of "Sunset to the Sea" or the dense wash of noise that comprises the white-hot "Smash Myself to Bits."

Wynn's core band, the Miracle 3, also generates a fair amount of heat, with drummer Linda Pitmon -- a veteran of Minneapolis pop-punks ZuZu's Petals -- turning out a handful of unassailably cool percussive touches: the rattlesnake shaker on "Strange New World"; the clink hammer of "Death Valley Rain"; the bone-dry snare of "Let's Leave It Like That." Meantime, bassist Dave DeCastro's oscillating four-string and the prowling tones of Chris Brokaw's guitar lend an adroit backing to a clutch of tunes that veer wildly -- and beautifully -- from start to finish.

Wynn's vocals similarly take on a variety of different hues: from lurching Time Out of Mind-Dylan ("Butterscotch") and the winsome, reedy register of Neil Young ("Good and Bad") to the deadpan delivery of old standby Lou Reed ("Blackout").

In sum, the scorched environs of the naked pueblo proved to be the very tonic needed to revitalize Wynn's muse.

"Going to Tucson, being around people who are kind of freaks. Working in a studio that specializes in recording freaks, with an engineer who has a good taste for freaks, but having the freaks all be friends of mine was a good combination," offers Wynn. "It was the best session I've ever had in my life."

Though recorded in Arizona, the album's themes are steeped in the seamy underbelly of Los Angeles, which has led several critics to deem Miracles a concept album about SoCal lowlifes -- something Wynn denies. While there are sections that could be interpreted as conceptual -- and admittedly, Wynn's writing does possess a literary bent -- it's clear the record was not intended as straight pulp fiction. (The notion may also have something to do with Wynn's recent association with hardboiled author George Pelecanos, who penned his bio and conducts an interview with the singer in the current issue of Magnet.)

Thankfully, when he does try his hand at noir imagery, Wynn succeeds where so many would-be musical Tarantinos fail, capturing a mood and a moment without merely relying on depictions of shock-inducing carnage. He details the first bloody stirrings of a life gone bad on "Blackout," later delivering the foreboding "Watch Your Step" before a farrago of death and deceit takes over on the jagged "Southern California Line."

"The whole noir, hardboiled thing is very comfortable for me because it's a form I really like and it's a big part of what I've read my whole life," he says. "But as far as all the California stuff -- Death Valley this, Topanga Canyon that -- it's weird, 'cause I lived here for 34 years, but I've never written about this area so much before. It wasn't intentional, it's just how it came out."

Ultimately, Wynn's lyrics rely less on setting than a combination of clever word play ("Well, you can strike up the band/With the back of your hand") and dark imagery ("Your ghost don't stand a chance when it's filled with flesh and blood"), yielding a platter that somehow manages to stay fresh over the course of 19 songs and 80-plus minutes.

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