Steve Gunn clearly isn’t one for sitting around. Barely three months after releasing his sixth solo album Way Out Weather – which itself followed just over a year after Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze, Kurt Vile’s breakout record on which Gunn was a sideman – here he is again.
Despite the top billing, he is very much one of many here, rather than a solo artist with an Appalacian old-time band in support, and it sounds very much a collaborative effort.
His hypnotic, looping, weaving guitar lines that were a hallmark of Way out Weather are still here, albeit at times pushed into the background by violins, banjos and jaw harps. And the smatterings of eastern music forms that were sprinkled throughout Weather are given more prominence, aided by the more varied instrumentation.
Even though the instruments used are ancient – and the partly-improvised sessions are recorded refreshingly raw on here – the songs do not sound like a pastiche of old mountain music. Sure, a small soundbite will scream “porch music”, but when listened to in full the album, in its own way, fits in with the rest of Thrill Jockey’s usual offerings of psych and space rock: some songs have an unnerving drone, others a repetitive, hypnotic nature.
Like the first, ‘Dive for the Pearl’, which is like gate-crashing a jam session. With no introduction, the riff which permeates the whole song starts, Gunn’s guitar forming the base for a banjo, which is then joined by a violin and harmonica that launches into a solo, while the two original instruments carry on unchanged. It is catchier than foot and mouth and a darn sight more enjoyable.
The second, ‘Don’t Let the Deal Go Down’ is more traditional-sounding mountain music, with its violins chasing each other around while Mike Glangoff sings over the top of them. The third, ‘Cardinal 51′, features Sally Anne Morgan on vocals and fades in with violins and a guitar like an acoustic Spiritualized song, before the banjo takes over. Morgan’s vocals are given just enough of an echo to make the song sound like a ghostly tune from the distant past, whistling through the mountains of the eastern USA.
In the fourth song, ‘Trailways Ramble’, Gunn sings as well as provides the lead guitar. It is mesmerising, beautiful, in the way that watching waves from a windswept beach in a storm is. Gunn’s guitar takes on a flavour of a harmonium before the jaw harp – an instrument most recognisable as the one that makes the spring noise in an old cartoon, but used to haunting, lonely effect here – embarks on an extended solo. Then Gunn comes back and sings “See you at first light, on the trailways ramble”.
The title track ends the album and it demands that the listener sits down and listens. It is over 16 mintues long and takes the form of an Indian raga. Gunn and the jaw harp feel each other out for a couple of minutes, before the banjo tentatively joins in. The trio then settle seemingly nervously into a pattern, before the piece opens up into an easy-going groove, joined by the violins and harmonica which provide a warm background drone.
The band then builds a head of steam, sounding simultaneously spontaneous and connected, as the listener picks out shafts of melody and colour in the relative wall of noise.
A ship’s bell then signals the band to settle down and once again Gunn’s guitar is brought to the forefront, picking an intricate, rhythmic melody, before the violin takes over, with the banjo picking out another pattern in the background.
It is quite a journey and one which you can imagine the band laying down their instruments at the end of recording (much of the album was recorded live) and slowly nodding their heads in the knowledge that they’d just made something special. And you know what? They had.
-- Matt Butler, Echoes and Dust