Brooklyn-based guitarist Steve Gunn is mostly known as an instrumentalist whose work stems from studying the fingerstyle blues ragas of players like John Fahey and Sandy Bull, as well as English folk-blues musicians like Michael Chapman and Bert Jansch. On Time Off, one of a pair of 2013 “band” releases (the other being Golden Gunn on Three Lobed), the guitarist introduces a somewhat different approach that stems from a trio of musicians including frequent collaborator/drummer John Trucsinski and electric bassist Justin Tripp. The music here has a well-heeled sprawl as Gunn introduces the guise of singer-songwriter to his long-spun sonic tales. Gunn has a breezy, mumbled quality to his vocal delivery that isn’t always intelligible, but it’s clearly felt against shuffling rhythms and a spiraling economy of six-string knots. The vibe often seems akin to Bull’s Demolition Derby or the ensemble pieces on Fahey’s The Yellow Princess (albeit less surreal), reimagined with a thin reflection of Skip Spence at the helm. But it’s be unfair to say that Gunn is mining the past; rather, he comes out of a tradition that is easily traced to the 1960s (and probably lands a bit further back), when folksy fantasias received the support of limber rock rhythm sections.
The set opens with “Water Wheel,” which has to be one of the most gorgeously effective “side one, track ones” in recent memory (or the other phrase critics may be loath to use, “summer jam”). Even with a delayed entry of Gunn’s breathy keen, the minimal rejoinder cementing the A section crisply focuses the tune from the beginning, buoyed by the dry lope of Trucsinski and Tripp. If William Ackerman wrote folk rock, it might sound a fair bit like this. A slinky B-section is orchestrated with depth (one can imagine it supported by a string section) and lends itself to a rollicking electric guitar solo with the only absentee being a barrelhouse piano accompanist. “Lurker” is a tune that Gunn has returned to often — “The Lurker, Extended” appeared on the 4LP Three Lobed set Not the Spaces You Know, But Between Them (2011) and was the first concentrated view of Gunn’s vocal work. Here it begins with an unaccompanied misty mountain alap, almost Fahey-like before the band enters, limned by ghostly drone and a knotty, shuffling beat. Cyclical refrains with a clacking freight-train motion support Gunn’s tale of a Boerum Hill fixture with both psychedelic sweetness and salty direction in an entrancing eight-minute jam. That trippy swaddling recurs in the following “Street Keeper,” incisive ramble set into an ornate, syrupy lushness as Truscinski’s brushwork and mallets raise the improvisational bar in the tune’s closing minutes.
Following a taut ode to Jack Rose in the dusky twang of “New Decline,” Gunn and Truscinski employ coiled sparseness on “Old Strange,” with
pliant bass flecks and terse flourishes from cellist Helena Espvall (Espers). The focus is on sinewy and delicate rhythms, the flinty dialogue between six-string and malleted toms (though Tripp is a pliant bassist with an interesting warble) gradually building to dense, anthemic exhortations. The closing “Trailways Ramble” is, at nearly nine minutes, the longest piece on the set and entirely instrumental; it first appeared as the solo “Trailways Gramble” on the Three Lobed compilation Eight Trails, One Path (2012). Thick overdubbed washes of six-string repetition and an angular, limber groove create a stately framework that supports Espvall’s ponticello wails, which intertwine and reflect from Gunn’s lacy, twanged accents. Although there is little of the improvised music tradition on Time Off or in Gunn’s work generally, the closer is intensely open and points to a compelling merger of “freedom” and folk music. Nevertheless, what’s particularly exciting about this disc is the possibility that lies in Gunn’s interleaving of timeless songs and allover “time” — few of his influences and even fewer of his peers have searched in this direction.