There’s timelessness in the music of Appalachia: the haunting sonnets of lost love, the revenge-fueled murder ballads that resonate across the ages. From the English maritime shanties that birthed them, through the 20st century collections of Harry Smith and Alan Lomax and into the present day, these songs have remained relevant. On Seasonal Hire, guitarist Steve Gunn and folk collective Black Twig Pickers delve deeply into that vein to produce a handful of songs which both pay tribute to the rich musical tradition and maintain a unique sense of progressivism.
In Steve Gunn, The Black Twig Pickers find an artist with an uncanny ability to mesh with seemingly any genre or style. Here the genre is patently old time, although aimed carefully in a new direction with a bold sense of exploration. Gunn finds all of the appropriate spaces to occupy with acoustic guitar while the banjo, mouth harp and vocals generally remain in the foreground. Some of these songs are rooted in very old music (“Dont Let Your Deal Go Down”, based on Charlie Poole’s blues of the same name); the others only sound like they could have been written at some point in the early 1900s.
Nowhere is the sense of merging old and new more evident than on the album opener “Dive for the Pearl.” Originally featured on a collaborative album between Gunn and Mike Gangloff of The Black Twig Pickers, the tune begins with a lilting banjo melody, accompanied by a droning guitar and jaw harp. As the drone gradually comes further to the fore, the similarly hypnotizing melody remains consistent and comingles with the backing instruments perfectly, creating a lively and strange effect that somehow evades dissonance before finally culminating into a Canned Heat-like old time boogie.
Shades of experimentation become more evident on the album’s second side. “Trailways Ramble” features Gunn’s only take on vocals, his voice perfectly suited for the ethereal country-style tune, as hoots and hums color the background. Again the drone is put to effective use here, this time emanating from the mouth harp; someone strikes a banjo chord, punctuated by the unorthodox use of a metal slide, and the song resolves in the angular melodies of guitar and banjo as Gunn’s narrative comes to a close.
The album finishes with the beautifully expressive, slow-burning title track of Seasonal Hire. Blistering bluegrass weirdness is eschewed for careful, methodical songbuilding that could almost be described as “ambient American primitivism.” An extended outro straddles between eeriness and sublime joy as the sounds of one – no, perhaps two fiddles circle and ensnare one another, finally drawing to a close around the gentle strumming of acoustic guitar. Stretching beyond sixteen minutes in length, “Seasonal Hire” captures so many dynamics that the song’s duration never becomes an issue, indeed leaving the listener both satisfied and hoping for more.
Seasonal Hire is a stunning finished product, both as a collaborative effort and as an individual statement in the progression of two unique artists’ careers. In combining the styles of old-time fiddle music with experimental drone and unorthodox instrumentation, the principle actors here succeed in a strange alchemy that is a joy to visit again and again. Perhaps most importantly, Steve Gunn’s masterful ability to listen and react, to act as a foil for his skilled compatriots, as well as The Black Twig Pickers’ malleability in giving room to their esteemed colleague, results in an album subtly bursting with low-key brilliance.
-- Aaron Teixeira, Glide