String the­ory

A master gui­tarist makes a rush and a push for the big time. By John Mul­vey.

Mojo (UK) - - Filter Albums -

Steve Gunn

★★★★ 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.

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