A master guitarist makes a rush and a push for the big time. By John Mulvey.
★★★★ The Unseen In Between MATADOR. CD/DL/LP IT’S ONE OF those odd quirks of musical history that a bunch of leftfield artists with roots in Philadelphia currently form a new, understated kind of rock establishment. They’re adventurous classicists who disdain the grandstanding of some of their predecessors, forging an evolved idea of tradition. Chief among them, of course, are Adam Granduciel and Kurt Vile, going from strength to strength as dazed millennial Bruce Springsteens and Tom Pettys respectively. Steve Gunn, briefly a member of Vile’s band The Violators, is, if anything, an even more unlikely mainstream artist. His background is in the tangled world of underground folk, a fellow traveller of Jack Rose, stretching the parameters of solo guitar music into exploratory, often psychedelic spaces. In recent years, though, Gunn has found ways of parlaying that experimental imperative into finely-wrought, nuanced folkrock. His discography is too complex and studded with joint efforts to say with much certainty how many albums he’s actually made. The Unseen In Between may be his eighth solo set, and may also be his most accomplished to date. Proof of an enhanced status comes in the first few seconds of the opening New Moon, as Gunn’s acoustic is joined by the plangent double bass notes of Tony Garnier, on loan from Bob Dylan’s patient and flexible road band. There’s the charge Gunn introduced on his 2016 Matador debut Eyes On The Lines, without the slightly prosaic indie-rock which sometimes marred that album. Instead, The Unseen In Between reconnects with the airiness of Time Off (2013) and Way Out Weather (2014), then points up the sound with a fresh confidence. In the production of second guitarist James Elkington, every instrument is given room to manoeuvre, every player allowed to show off an economic, notably unostentatious brand of virtuosity. So New Moon builds with a measured, incremental urgency, picking up texture and detail as it goes along – another layer of guitar here; a fleeting string arrangement there – until the last 30 seconds find Gunn hitting his pedals for a brief and restrained climax. Elegant, judiciously deployed freakouts are a hallmark, the sign of a player bold enough to rein himself in rather than over-indulge. When he does let go, on New Familiar, the impact is doubled, exhilarating. Mostly, there’s a sense of Gunn transcending his original reputation as a player, and asserting his skill as a songsmith. Much of his earlier writing felt like responses to other art – a Rebecca Solnit book on Eyes On The Lines, for example – and this album’s psychedelic peak, Lightning Field, takes inspiration from a Walter De Maria art installation in the New Mexico desert. But for the first time, Gunn’s personal experience is explicit and critical. Stonehurst Cowboy is a memorial for his late father, where the starkness and unadorned poignancy call to mind one of Gunn’s recent collaborators, ornery Yorkshire singersongwriter Michael Chapman. Two years ago, Gunn contributed a couple of Smiths covers to the website Aquarium Drunkard. “The Smiths were the first guitar band that really spoke to me,” he admitted. “Johnny Marr’s arrangements mystified me, transfixed me. I felt they were something I’d never be able to decipher. It wasn’t until later that I started to look into his influences, and I came to understand his playing and arranging.” Much of Gunn’s album operates in a similar way: straightforward but elliptical; direct but enduringly rich; the unseen, in between. Vagabond, a gorgeous duet with fellow Philly alum Meg Baird, makes plain the Smiths connection, echoing as it does the cycling majesty of Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others. But there are deeper resonances working all the time, threading a path back through Johnny Marr to Bert Jansch and a commingling of British and American folk revivals. It’s another way in which Steve Gunn discreetly aligns himself with great traditions; ones which still have a good few revelations to impart, even now.
Eyes on the pies: Steve Gunn shops organic, plays that way too.