Steve Gunn Eyes on the Lines

[Matador; 2016]

Styles: folk, indie, guitar
Others: William Tyler, Kurt Vile, Cian Nugent

There’s a feeling captured by Champ Ensminger’s video for Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper’s “Pony Blues” that seems to embody Gunn’s music. The song, from the pair’s 2014 album Cantos de Lisboa, is an old blues by Charley Patton, a song that rotates on the axis of a single chord that Gunn and Cooper augment with a foggy drone. Ensmiger’s video is a parable in which a boy follows a girl, who is actually a river spirit, through the jungle and down to a river. Shot in Pai, Thailand, it’s full of aerial shots and closeups of caterpillars and snorting oxen. It’s a story of intense physical drama — the boy follows the spirit into the river, where he drowns — but the narrative is subsumed by the sharp pungency of the video’s sensations. Lust pours out of the leaves, water shivers in the rocks, steam clings to the low mountains like breath on a bathroom mirror. There’s longing in everything the boy touches along his journey. Raw, tactile experience overwhelms tension and climax; the story itself becomes secondary, blanketed in myth and vivid color.

Eyes on the Lines sees Steve Gunn following largely in the path he set out on his 2014 solo record Way Out Weather, with songs that stitch together cascading musical figures and luxuriate in the sound of electric and acoustic guitar. On some of his earlier work, like 2013’s Time Off, grooves coalesced almost haphazardly at times, reminiscent of the Dead emerging blearily from a 30-minute jam. There is nothing so loose here; the songs aren’t open-ended adventures as much as contained observations about searching for inner peace, little verses of prayer engraved in ornate lockets. These suites, like “Full Moon Tide’s” buoyant, colorful ride, have no center, riding from one winding riff to the next (many of them bolstered by supporting guitarist James Elkington). On”Ancient Jules,” Gunn takes handfuls of layered, stair-stepping runs, but the ups and downs are topographical, not tumultuous. His natural, plainspoken singing helps even out the ride. As on many of the tracks, Gunn, an exceptionally busy touring musician, sings of the road, of getting lost and finding his way home, of sleeping in the grass under the gray sky. His guitar solo calmly threads and meanders.

Most songs take the form of this kind of zen guidance, but Eyes on the Lines avoids stagnancy in part due to its relative brevity — only 9 tracks — and in part due to Gunn’s combination of flowy melodies and shifting chord progressions, which can trigger a kind of relaxed euphoria. “Night Wander” begins with a circular guitar riff, which is joined by a delicately funky drum line, running lightly counter to the guitar, each churning forward like opposing currents. They form the undulating backdrop for a song about following a cat on its nighttime exploration through the neighborhood; the narrator and the cat wander down to the river where they see a sturgeon, “so majestic/ reflective eyes and a marble head.” It could be a silly conceit, of course, but it’s delivered with an earnestness that makes you consider its simple truth. And anyway, the message of the song is not limited to the story, but is more fully fleshed out by the tones and textures of the journey itself. It moves through little dipping lines of melody, like long gulps of cool water, then cuts back to just drums and organ, while Gunn’s guitar dances freely on top. Like the rest of the music on the record, there’s no tension, no problem — these melodies are the cousins of the tunes we hum to ourselves as we walk around trying to retain balance, trying to even out the good moments and the bad. Gunn subsumes our drama by urging us, through the timbre of his guitar, to take in the leaves, the water, the steam.

Links: Steve Gunn - Matador

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