Listening to Seasonal Hire, the second collaboration between guitarist/singer/songwriter Steve Gunn and Old Dominion traditionalists the Black Twig Pickers, is like tugging at a stray thread on a sweater. It unravels with each note, loosening and losing shape, form unspooling into formlessness. "Dive for the Pearl" opens the album with a tight, hypnotic mountain reel that’s arguably the most structured performance here—a knotty tangle of banjo plucks, guitar picking, harmonica whines, and mouth harp boings. Later, the title track closes this mini-album out with a long, improvised holler raga, which rambles and deconstructs itself over 16 minutes. There’s something beguiling about that trajectory, which shows just how purposefully these musicians are using old sounds to illuminate new ideas.
In fact, Seasonal Hire sounds more like a Black Twig Pickers album than a Steve Gunn album, which may disappoint fans of Time Off and Way Out Weather. He sings lead on only one track, "Trailways Ramble", and only on that long closer does his guitar dominate. Everywhere else, he subsumes himself into the band as a fifth Black Twig Picker, which suggests a very democratic collaboration or possibly a solo artist finding some comfort in abdicating the spotlight. A frequent collaborator with Kurt Vile, Mike Cooper, and others, Gunn has toured with the band and even hired Black Twig banjo player Nathan Bowles as his drummer for the Weather tour. In 2012, they released a free three-song EP titled NATCH 1, which filtered Middle Eastern musical ideas through Appalachian instrumentation; a year later, Gunn and Twig fiddler Mike Gangloff recorded Melodies for a Savage Fix, which contained an early, sparer version of "Dive for the Pearl".
Even as it builds on those previous collaborations, Seasonal Hire sounds bolder and richer, more purposeful but also more daring. These songs borrow from their respective catalogs to create something new altogether: a kind of drone folk that’s heavy on high-lonesome ambience yet deeply rooted in the clay of regional tradition. Of the five songs, four are originals and only one is a cover, "Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down", based on an early 20th-century tune often attributed to Fiddlin’ John Carson. Gangloff’s fiddle takes lead, as he plays a droning intro and then ghosts Bowles’ vocal melody alongside Gunn—both of them one beat behind, like hellhounds on his trails. His scratchy voice could easily fall into the kind of hick caricature that makes Scott H. Biram and William Elliott Whitmore so hokey, yet Bowles’ weathered timbre evokes the hard experiences motivating the song’s cautionary advice. When he punctuates the performance with a high whooo!—one of the most unguarded and seemingly unrehearsed moments on the record—it sounds like the cry of a man shedding his heavy burdens.
Sally Anne Morgan sings lead on the bouncy jig "Cardinal 51" and Gunn takes over on "Trailways Ramble", which is arguably the most modern-sounding song on Seasonal Hire—if such a distinctive is even useful. As though sung from the back of a crowded bus in the middle of a long journey, the song conveys movement not through tempo, but through the fluidity with which it shifts from rumination to ramble. Perhaps Gunn’s itinerant narrator is headed west for work, as the title track implies, with its undercurrent of what sounds like industrial machinery. Or perhaps he’s off to no place in particular. As "Seasonal Hire" digresses, it mimics the trajectory of getting lost. Rarely does losing your way sound so purposeful and inviting.
-- Stephen Deusner, Pitchfork