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Mike & Cara Gangloff: Gunn-Gangloff "Melodies for a Savage Fix" CD

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Mike & Cara Gangloff: Gunn-Gangloff "Melodies for a Savage Fix" LP

Listening to a duo can feel a lot like eavesdropping on the conversation at a neighboring table. It’s an intimate form, where ideas are shared directly instead of being mitigated by a third or fourth or fifth party. The proclivities of two musicians interact, alternately intertwining into something new and pushing apart until their individual approaches nestle like complementary puzzle pieces. If you’re familiar with the other output of the principals, the listening can even turn into a mathematical game, where you start to understand how the players respond to certain situations and how they view what they do. More than a quintet configuration, where separate ideas turn idea a thicket so dense it’s sometimes impossible to discern where one player begins and another ends, duos invite a uniquely interactive listening experience: You can peel apart the pieces while you listen, almost as if you were watching the sessions themselves. In fact, two of my favorite records of this year—both by duos—take very different approaches to foster that same feeling.

The sensation of listening in presides throughout Melodies for a Savage Fix, a five-track collaboration between guitarist Steve Gunn and fiddler Mike Gangloff. Those are, at least, the roles for which they’re best known: Gangloff contributes lithe lines to the Black Twig Pickers and his great yawning tones to Pelt. Gunn, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the best young flat-pickers in music, thanks to the serpentine variations of his previous solo and duo records, his recent supporting role in Kurt Vile’s Violators and the imaginative folk-rock of this year’s Dead-summoning Time Off.

But Gunn and Gangloff are both multi-instrumentalists, and that’s a central feature of Savage Fix’s improvisational slipstream: In early February, the pair isolated themselves in the rural Virginia studio of Joseph Dejarnette with a menagerie of instruments far wider than their usual tools. Gangloff brought his bows and banjo, and Gunn brought his guitars. They added an assembly of international musical toys—singing bowls and gongs, the long-necked tambura and a droning Indian shruti box. They began recording the night of February 8 and finally quit as dawn approached the next day. The five pieces—no overdudbs or rearrangements, only edits—that shape Savage Fix speak to the spirit of the nocturnal session and the parallel strengths of its players.

“Slide and Gong,” whose title is every bit as literal as it may seem, is an anxious blues anthem. Gunn picks and scrapes a riff until he no longer does, sometimes sliding off the theme into a thistle of resonator noise. Gangloff patiently bangs and bows the metal, his slow hits adding a groaning layer of desolation beneath Gunn’s. Earth has previously traced lines between doom metal and the blues, but Gangloff and Gunn reimagine the route here. “Worry Past Worry” mines the onset of late-night delirium, though, with Gunn sketching quick guitar lines to nowhere and Gangloff intoning wide arches with his tanbura. It’s the sound of two friends staring at one another across a room, slipping out of any real-world troubles and into a sort of ad hoc cocoon.

That same sense of emotional sublimation is at work on the record’s beautiful back half, too. Though these sessions were actually finished around 3 a.m., “Topeka AM” embraces both darkness and dawn. Tufts of nervous notes stretch into graceful, ascendant latticework; by the end, the song is practically skipping, with Gunn’s guitar bouncing over Gangloff’s casual percussion. If it’s an aubade, then closing delight “Dive for the Pearl” is a full reflection of daylight. The spry duet for banjo and guitar dips toward the bottom of Gunn’s chords but lifts continually with the momentum of Gangloff’s swift melody. It’s a short and economical number, not unlike the instrumental sprints of The Black Twig Pickers. It’s slyly circular, too, suggesting the long-form desert blues that Gunn has created elsewhere with drummer John Truscinski. It’s a fitting synthesis not only of the moment but of these players, too—two busy musicians, staying up late to revel in the skills of the other.

-- Grayson Haver Currin, Pitchfork