(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #68 – released April 24, 2001)
Track listing: Here Come the Miracles / Shades of Blue / Sustain / Blackout / Butterscotch / Southern California Line / Morningside Heights / Let’s Leave It Like That / Crawling Misanthropic Blues / Drought / Death Valley Rain / Strange New World / Sunset To The Sea / Good and Bad / Topanga Canyon Freaks / Watch Your Step / Charity / Smash Myself To Bits / There Will Come a Day
Beginning with The Beatles (aka, “The White Album”) and enduring through the likes of Quadrophenia, English Settlement and Sign O The Times, the Rock Double Album long served as an ideal format for musicians to make a grand, artistic statement. However, by the 1990s, it had fallen out of favor, apart from the occasional outlier such as Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness or triple-LP 69 Love Songs. For this, you could blame compact discs triumphing over 33 1/3 vinyl records as the dominant physical format since the former could easily fit up to 79 minutes of music on one disc (as opposed to on average 45 minutes over two sides of a vinyl record.) With some classic double LPs even coming in short enough to comfortably fit on one CD (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Bad Girls), the etymology changed, the mere idea of an album being a single or a double now mostly irrelevant. If you really wanted to make such a distinction between the two, you’d say something like Boys For Pele clocks in at double album-length (and then perhaps grouse about how it could’ve benefited from some pruning.)
Still, the double album (not to mention the spirit behind wanting to make one) never entirely went away. As we enter the final third of this project, we’ll encounter a number of single CDs with enough music on them to spread over four LP sides (and indeed, some of the later ones will be available for purchase as actual double LPs thanks to the vinyl resurgence), plus at least three honest-to-god double albums of the “released on two CDs” variety. The first of them ticks off the prerequisite boxes: a grand artistic statement made by an artist several albums into a venerable career, containing too much music to fit on a single CD (just barely—both discs together clock in at 82 minutes.)
Steve Wynn (obv. the musician, not the casino mogul) had spent the 1980s leading The Dream Syndicate, an L.A. post-punk quartet so ardently reminiscent of The Velvet Underground (with Wynn’s vocals initially coming off as if he were Lou Reed’s kid brother) that they and other likeminded bands were dubbed members of a new “Paisley Underground.” After four albums and numerous personnel changes, they split up just in time for Wynn to go solo in 1990. Over the following decade, he put out six albums comprising one of the richest and sorely overlooked discographies of the era. Most impressively, each one is its own distinct animal, ranging from chiming power pop (Kerosene Man) and pastoral folk rock (Fluorescent) to back-to-basics guitar grunge (Melting in the Dark) and a magisterial blend of all three with some Stax-like soul added in for good measure (My Midnight). There’s not a weak title in the bunch; such consistency renders Wynn possibly my favorite relatively obscure singer/songwriter of all time (next to Sam Phillips, of course).
His seventh solo album Here Come the Miracles utilized the double album format almost as a means to vindicate that undiminished consistency; the copy on cover insert also made blatant what Wynn was reaching for, calling it “his Zen Arcade, his Exile on Main Street.” I remember around the time of its release, in an interview Wynn said that the only reason it ended up a double album was because he felt all of its 19 songs deserved to be there. While conceivably he could have released each disc as its own single album, when examining Miracles as a whole, you can’t help but feel he made the right call. In my mind, the best thing a double album does is firmly hold a listener’s interest over its extended duration. With the exception of a concept album we’ll get to down the road, Miracles more successfully fulfills this criteria than any other double album on this list.
Each of Wynn’s albums has a particular feeling or flavor that’s often a result of where and with whom he recorded it—for instance, 2008’s made-in-Slovenia Crossing Dragon Bridge is like absolutely nothing else in his catalog due to its exotic locale, factoring in heavily to its sound and subject matter. Likewise, Miracles was recorded in the Tuscon desert and its songs often feel agreeably dusty and dry, their compact hooks given space to breathe via lengthy instrumental intros and codas. Wynn also made the album with a core group: Chris Brokaw (lead guitar), Dave DeCastro (bass), Chris Cavacas (keys) and Linda Pitmon (drums). Arguably the most simpatico unit he had played with since the lineup on The Dream Syndicate’s debut album The Days of Wine and Roses, he’d record a few albums after Miracles under the moniker Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, which included DeCastro, Pitmon and guitarist Jason Victor.
Part of the reason as to why Wynn has forever remained a cult artist, never achieving the commercial success of contemporaries such as R.E.M. and Talking Heads or the critical cachet of someone like Bob Mould or Robyn Hitchcock is that he’s never strived to innovate or reinvent the wheel. That’s not to classify him as overly derivative, a la Lenny Kravitz; Wynn’s more of a traditionalist, really. He’s the guy in high school who wore out the grooves on his Velvets albums, yes, but also the Nuggets compilations of ’60s psychedelic garage rockers. His sound also exudes heavy traces of Big Star-like power pop, along with the guitar-end of the new wave spectrum and a healthy dose of Dylan-esque troubadour. He doesn’t necessarily synthesize all those influences into something new, but neither does it at all smack of anonymity. Crucially, his personality always shines through, whether he’s being witty, wistful, introspective or just an asshole (albeit a well-meaning one, usually.)
Miracles kicks off with its title track, a concise rocker that neatly distills the album’s overarching garage aesthetic by way of a fuzz-tone guitar riff, a stop-and-start rhythm, cheapo organ, sneering, spoken vocals on the verses followed by a sweetly sung chorus and just to make things interesting, an unexpected sitar on the coda. Managing to come across both ragged and off-the-cuff, but also tight and undeniably catchy, it’s a two-prong approach Wynn returns to often, with minor variations: the juiced-up, psycho-billy stomp on the even briefer, delectably-titled “Crawling Misanthropic Blues”, the relentless, monolithic, ultra-compressed Nu-Ramones of “Southern California Line” (which features the slyest “Hey, hey” heard outside of a late-period Beatles record), the two-note, Bo Diddley riff monster “Strange New World” (which just as appropriately kicks off the second disc and finds Wynn spooling out such clever rhymes as “New Orleans/gasoline”), and the titanium-plated glam-rock of “Watch Your Step”, which soars to heaven-on-earth on its final chorus by cutting out the vocals for a surplus of irresistibly melodic, instrumental hooks.
While Wynn could’ve easily churned out 19 tracks of this kind of stuff, the bulk of Miracles branches off into various stylistic turns that provide the versatility required to sustain one’s interest for over an hour and a quarter while all sounding like they belong on the same album. Immediately following the title track, “Shades of Blue” showcases Wynn’s poppier, janglier side to great effect. Its primary four-note riff harkens back to The Dream Syndicate’s arguably best-known song, “Tell Me When It’s Over” and the lyric, “lost in wine and roses,” is a blatant callback to that band’s aforementioned first album. However, he’s not trying to recreate his old band’s sound; if anything, “Shades of Blue” shows how far he’s progressed in two decades as a songwriter—just check out the stirring chord changes of the middle-eight or how serendipitously the song’s melody compliments the occasional roughness of the guitars.
Those occasions where Wynn turns down the volume a notch and fully gives in to his singer/songwriter side are when you really notice his melodic strengths. Perhaps the highlight of the first disc, “Morningside Heights” practically shimmers into focus on a bed of piano, vibes, cymbals and blissful, gentle “wooohs”. It could easily fit on The Velvet Underground, of course, but also on an early Laura Nyro record or even Revolver, particularly when the “ba, ba, ba’s” buoy the middle-eight. The next track, “Let’s Leave it Like That” carries over that song’s essence but at a decidedly more jaunty pace, the percussion practically tap-dancing as Wynn in a conspiring whisper spins an almost whimsical tale of a gal named “Champagne Sally” who “kinda likes it rough,” as a bleeding, Yo La Tengo-ish organ makes nice in the background with a bass harmonica on the chorus. And even when he lessens the tempo but not the volume, he can still churn out a memorable trifle like “Butterscotch” which carefully ekes out every last drop of its melodic potential with surgical focus, from its sublime “ooohs” and “aaahs” to its hypnotic, deliberate, plodding rhythms.
Atmosphere also plays a significant part in Miracles’ appeal. One constant in Wynn’s oeuvre is that no matter where an album is conceived or recorded, more than a hint of California noir runs through it (at least up until that album he made in Slovenia.) On mid-tempo tracks like “Drought”, “Blackout” and “Sunset to the Sea”, he instantly conjures a world of despair and regret, loose morals and actions mourned, placing the rhythm section in the foreground with piano and guitar providing character and shading but never obscuring the songs’ tightly wound melodies. Faster tunes such as “Death Valley Rain” or “Sustain” (which sports the album’s best intro—a stretched-out-towards-infinity lone chord that finally resolves itself when the rhythm section comes in with a killer bass riff) retain a likeminded vibe but with a noticeable edge, careening on by at a precarious pace, almost as if you the listener are in the passenger seat of a vehicle haphazardly navigating a steep, winding mountain road.
His knack for atmosphere and expansive song structures becomes even more apparent on Miracles’ second disc, beginning with its third track, “Good and Bad”. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, it’s his definitive Neil Young-style epic, minimalist in every way apart from length. Piano-led and mostly acoustic, it’s a song about healing that achieves a sort of catharsis in Wynn’s extended, blistering, more-instinctual-than-technical guitar solo. “Topanga Canyon Freaks” follows with a swampy, gleefully sinister, Gris-Gris-era Dr. John-inspired palette of tape loops, tinkling piano, half-spoken vocals and scattered references to taco stands and “tequila-soaked bedsheets”. After the relative concision of “Watch Your Step”, “Charity” again stretches things out to nearly six minutes, drifting off into a barren, endless Southwestern landscape, Wynn’s barely-there muffled vocal moving the whole thing along while all remains slow, beautiful and immense. It dribbles to a close, and “Smash Myself to Bits” makes an abrupt entrance at full throttle, repeating a two-bar riff ad infinitum while harmonica and mewling guitar noise build towards a glorious bedlam. This goes on for two-and-a-half minutes until the vocals finally come in, replacing the riff until they swap places again for a ninety-second outro.
“Smash Myself to Bits” stops as suddenly as it started, making way for “There Will Come a Day”, Miracles’ final song—rightly sequenced, for its placement anywhere else on the album is inconceivable. Beginning with lone electric guitar chords on the left channel before the rest of the band kicks in, it’s a big, warm, gospel-y confessional number of the sort Bob Dylan and The Band might’ve included on The Basement Tapes. With soulful organ and piano as prominent in the mix as the guitars, Wynn, in possibly his most outgoing vocal on Miracles, sings of “Everyone who had done me wrong / and those who would wrong me still.” While he goes on to wish on his enemies such maladies as “loss of limb and lingering disease,” by the time he reaches the chorus, he’s come around, revealing this as a lament about redemption for all people, not least himself: “There will come a day / There will come a day / When all of the evil / will be washed away / The patient will be rewarded / and their tormentors will pay / There will come a day, lord / There will come a day.” Everything in this song exudes pure joy, not least the “Hey Jude”-like ending where a ramshackle choir repeats the title for nearly two minutes before concluding with applause and the clinking of glasses. It’s admittedly a little corny, but damn effective—never more so than when I first heard it, about six months after the album came out but only six weeks after 9/11. It served almost as a balm, a corrective at a time when everything was uncertain and irrevocably altered. Even hearing it now, I find uncommon comfort in its utter sanity and grace.
Wynn has made a few good records since Miracles (mostly notably its follow-up, 2003’s Static Transmission), but perhaps its status as a definitive double album has kept him from even trying to top it. And yet, at this writing, he’s assembled a new version of The Dream Syndicate (with the original drummer), which in a few months will release their first album in nearly thirty years, How Did I Find Myself Here. If the expansive lead single/11-minute title track is any indication, he’s not exactly resting on his laurels, which I suppose is the most one could hope for from a veteran artist.
Up next: Rip it up and start again.
“There Will Come a Day”: