Among the many qualities that have made Steve Wynn one of rock's truest unsung heroes is his willingness to share the spotlight without gearing down his own talents. Wynn's a guy who thrives on a good collaboration, from Danny & Dusty and Gutterball to the Baseball Project and a pair of albums he recorded with Paco Loco (aka Paco Martinez), a Spanish musician and producer best known as a member of the band Australian Blonde. Loco and Wynn struck up a friendship while Wynn toured Spain in 1998, and in 2000, Wynn suggested they collaborate on a song for a project with eMusic. The tune spawned an entire album, with Wynn recording his parts in the United States and mailing tapes to Loco and his bandmates in Spain. That album, Momento, credited to Australian Blonde Featuring Steve Wynn, led to a second project in 2007, with Wynn and his longtime drummer Linda Pitmon recording with Loco at his studio in Andalucia under the collective handle Smack Dab. The Smack Dab album and Momento receive their long-overdue American debut on the two-fer Sketches in Spain, and both recordings are a testament to Wynn's gift as a songwriter and how he can mesh his own ideas with those of his musical partners. In some respects, Momento sounds like the polished and accessible pop album Wynn would never have dared to make on his own; Australian Blonde deliver a set of lively and eclectic indie pop, dotted with jangly guitars, keyboards, and occasional horn and string overdubs, while Wynn's dour vocals and streetwise, often witty lyrics make for a fascinating complement, blending sweet and sour in just the right proportions. This music turns out to be a superb accompaniment for Wynn's lyrics and vocals, without ever sounding like what you'd expect from a Steve Wynn record. The Smack Dab album is a very different project, sounding much less glossy and more organic, with Wynn and Loco tossing guitar lines back and forth while Pitmon holds down a lean, imaginative backbeat and Wynn delivers smart, razor-sharp lyrics. While musically Smack Dab has a personality that's very much its own, Wynn's contribution is strongly in the vein of his later-period Dream Syndicate work, especially on "My Cross to Bear" and "The Hollywood Sign," not derivative but a glimpse into a side of his musical personality that's not always on display these days. And on each album, Wynn has some corny fun with a cover, tackling Hoyt Axton's "Never Been to Spain" on Smack Dab and "Black Is Black" by Spanish one-hit wonders Los Bravos on Momento. Sketches in Spain brings together two very worthy rarities that Steve Wynn's fans will be delighted to hear, and according to the liner notes, Wynn and Paco have another album in the works that hopefully won't take so long to arrive stateside.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming