The last time The Black Twig Pickers co-released an album was in 2009 with guitarist Jack Rose. The self-titled album featured torn and frayed renditions of a song by Pelt (Rose's rustic drone outfit with fellow Twig Pickers Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles) and a couple of Rose originals, and some uproarious reworkings of country blues numbers. In an interview around the time, Rose speculated on what differentiated them from the free folk boom in a typically terse manner: "We swing like motherfuckers." That same year Rose passed away, but six years on and The Black Twig Pickers' tune remains gloriously the same, untouched by trends in either underground music or the bombasic pop of modern country.
On "Seasonal Hire" New York guitarist Steve Gunn joins the Appalachians, and while he doesn't possess the levitating Blind Willie Johnson slide style of Rose, he brings some pretty heavy artillery to this set. On the self-penned "Trailways Ramble," he marks out a lolloping skip rhythm on acoustic guitar which the The Black Twig Pickers slowly set up camp around. Gangloff accentuates the peg-legged gait with some plucked violin and jaw harp, while Sally Anne Morgan lays down a discordant drone on the fiddle. This frees up Gunn and Bowles to trade whiplash runs on the banjo and guitar, bookended by Gunn's rich voice as he commands, "Driver take me nowhere."
Pelt have been described as the hillbilly Theatre of Eternal Music, a coinage that began circulating at the Terrastock festival in San Francisco in 1998. But this album feels like a reversal of that scenario: urbanites abetting their passion for folk music with sustain and repetition. There are antecedents for this, such as Henry Flynt, The Holy Modal Rounders or Jackie-O Motherfucker, but this collaboration doesn't possess their helter-skeltering wildness. Instead, "Seasonal Hire" offers a more measured way of reconciling folk music and its gnarled musical roots.
Gunn's 2014 album "Way Out Weather" garnered praise from the mainstream music media who foregrounded his songwriting talent and his ability to meld country blues licks and ornamentation into psych pop. But he also has a long track record as an accompaniest with acts such as Kurt Vile and GHQ, his space ritual side project with Marcia Bassett and Pete Nolan. His association with The Black Twig Pickers dates back to a 7" in 2013, on a discombobulated version of the spiritual "Lonesome Valley" on which Gunn and the gang unravelled the edges of the melody while preservign its salutary gruffness. This new collaboration feels like his most companionable, as he flexes and grouses through many moods, always in the service of the song.
Indeed, one of the most impressive features of "Seasonal Hire" is its ensemble playing, with none of the musicians breaking rank and grandstanding with anything so crass as a solo. It's a unity that has been honed by The Black Twig Pickers' long residency at Floyd Country Store, a venue, diner and radio station located deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of their native Virginia. While this gives some sense of their connection to old time music (their own songs are of a piece with the album's one folk tune, "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down"), they also specialize in externalising the strangeness that lies beneath its crust -- the modified instruments, the endlessly iterating jigs and reels, the incantatory lyrics, the home-hewn virtuosity, as well as the hybridisation of numerous folk cultures, from Alpine yodelling to Irish fiddle. More than anything, Steve Gunn and The Black Twig Pickers plug in to the ur-drone that undperins the modal melodies of innumerable folk songs.
Many of the five tracks grow gradually from the Pythagorian hum of bowed cymbal and horizontal violin, out of which cyclical banjo patterns collide with guitars and snatches of harmonica. They don't so much swing like motherfuckers as spin like weathervanes in a dust storm. This reaches its apex on the title track, as Gunn takes his fingers for a walk over the frets with some modal free associating over Bowles's sruti box. This is spirited along with rhythmic fluctuations from Isak Howell's monochordal banjo riff, as Gangloff's gong swells create a constantly peaking morass.
On "Cardinal 51" glacial fiddle harmonics and Gunn's single note slide guitar provide a swarming bottom end like Vibracathedral Orchestra EBowing a diddly bo. This cushions Morgan's banjo and strangulated vocal, as she pines about "passing through a sulphur spring" before the song dissolves back into groaning celestial murk. On "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down" the group denude the song of any of the jauntiness prevalent on versions by western swing giants Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs or 1960s revivalists The New Lost City Ramblers, and reconnect it to Charlie Poole's 1920s recording, with all its hot syncopation and lurching melody.
In an interview with David Keenan in The Wire 242, Jack Rose suggested that the Second World War can be seen as a kind of fold in the map of American music -- a time when society was changing beyond recognition and those old rhythms were getting unkinked and slowed down. You can hear it in the evolution of this one song via the figures above. But "Seasonal Hire" goes a long way to rendering moot any old folk/pop folk/free folk distinctions by demonstrating that nothing is freer or weirder than the old songs in the right hands.
-- Alex Neilson, The Wire