The Black Twig Pickers have been peddling their bold and energetic update of old-time music for over a decade now, breathing new life into the traditional tunes from the Appalachian mountains. They prefer to record live, often at home, and many of their songs are versions of American folk music from the first half of the twentieth century.
Steve Gunn is a prolific musician based in Brooklyn, known to some as part of Kurt Vile's Violators, but also for Way Out Weather, his much acclaimed solo record from last year.
On Seasonal Hire, Gunn has joined forces with the Black Twig Pickers for the second time, following up their previous effort, 2013's Lonesome Valley. Over the course of these five tracks, the assembled musicians bring their own roots music to the mix, and end up with something that is slightly different to anything they have done before.
It is not a dramatic change of direction of course, because Pickers' core instrumentation of fiddle, mouth harp, banjo and harmonica, places this material deep within Virginian folk tradition, and Gunn's vocal delivery and acoustic guitar playing will be familiar to fans of his solo work.
This album sounds raw and alive, there are no overdubs or amplification, and you can easily picture the musicians sitting together and just blasting through these tunes. Opening instrumental 'Dive for the Pearl' has an almost trance-like refrain plucked out on the banjo, with Gunn's acoustic guitar and the assorted traditional instruments (harmonica, fiddle, mouth harp) creating an organic wall of sound. It builds up and swirls like some sort of trippy barn dance.
The unplugged nature of the recording becomes evident when the vocals are introduced, and as the drone-based intro of 'Cardinal 51' merges into the main piece, Sally Anne Morgan's delivery battles through the instruments with some power. If anything, Mike Gangloff's vocals are even more raw on the traditional tune 'Don't Let Your Deal Go Down', whilst the ensemble sound great, showing off their natural balance and chemistry.
The piece which sounds closest to Steve Gunn's latest solo work is 'Trailways Ramble' with his vocal and guitar very much to the fore, and although the mouth harp plays a key part, this tune is downbeat modern folk with a hint of Eastern music, and it actually ends up recalling some of the acoustic pieces of Led Zeppelin.
The closing track - or all of side two if you have the vinyl edition - 'Seasonal Hire', develops this Eastern slant. This 16-minute instrumental is based around raga influences. The guitars and banjos merge and drone whilst the melodies are picked out sitar-style on each. The closing fiddle parts dominate and drag the track back to the Appalachians and the musos playing together at home, yet there is a marked contrast with the lengthy hoedowns found on the Pickers equally epic Whompyjawed.
Seasonal Hire is an album which sounds as out of place in 2015 as it would have in 1985, for example, however it is not quite as pure an old-time record as some of the Black Twig Pickers other work. Those pure Appalachian roots are tempered by the raga touches and the drone of psych-folk, although the passion and enthusiasm of the players comes across - these people are having fun. If you became interested in Steve Gunn's work because of his recent solo records, then this is definitely worth investigating as well.
-- Jonathan Greer, The 405