Out There

Elements of style
Melting in the Dark
Steve Wynn
Zero Hour Records

Beautiful Freak
Dreamworks Records

Sometimes you gotta shake things up--have Frosted Flakes instead of Grape-Nuts; it's a rule that Steve Wynn--known for his early-'80s stint with the Dream Syndicate and more recently Gutterball--knows well: He relocated to England for a few years, and Gutterball was about as off-the-cuff as a band can be. Now he's back in the United States, joining forces with Boston's Come for an album he hopes recalls the energy of the Syndicate.

Rehearsed in a day, cut in four, Melting in the Dark really doesn't work as nostalgia, although there are more than a few squalling guitars. While Melting is classic Wynn, it references his past few albums (Dazzling Display, etc.) more than the Dream Syndicate's groundbreaking Days of Wine and Roses (1982).

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The songs on Melting may be typical Wynn--fabulist grunt rock ("Stare It Down"), sinister pop ("Shelley's Blues Pt. 2"), and noir disavowals that only betray the hurt and fatigue behind them ("For All I Care"). Come energizes Wynn and shifts his paradigm, but you still can divine the basic colors on his palette. One person's same ol' is another's perfection of style.

Of course, you've got to have a style; before he formed the Eels, pop-loving songwriter E was more or less of the Rundberg mold, to less effect; he looked studious with round, gold-rimmed specs and a college boy brush cut. He's back now in full Rock Dork mode--retro clothes, tousled hair, and heavy, black-framed glasses--and it's easy to be suspicious, but the music on Beautiful Freak asks for some slack. Produced by Dust Brother Michael Simpson (Paul's Boutique, O-de-lay), the album is a collection of contrasts--found sounds and piano, synth and fuzzed guitar--that swells and fades as if breathing. It's from and for outsiders, and even though the narrator keeps asking questions like "How do you stand when you've been crushed?" ("Rags to Rags"), Freak isn't some indulgent wallow through bummerdom. Rather, it's an examination of square-peg life that isn't afraid to celebrate its joy as well as pain, as in "Susan's House," which alternates hip-hopped observations of urban decay with a chorus that's on its way to a tryst, riding an electric piano riff that is straight out of the theme from Taxi. Freak asks you not to judge E's stylistic switcheroo too harshly, and by the end of the album you concede, noting that he'd better not release a country album next.

--Matt Weitz

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