Steve Gunn Way Out Weather

[Paradise Of Bachelors; 2014]

Styles: psych-folk-rock
Others: Kurt Vile, Jack Rose, Glenn Jones, The Grateful Dead, Sun City Girls

Weather’s a conversation topic that brings people together across the globe desperate for some way to kill an awkward silence. Yet each time, the conversation can take a different direction. Way Out Weather was inspired by this versatile bit of dialogue, and appropriately it’s familiar (on first listen) and yet articulates itself quite uniquely with each replay. Steve Gunn’s music works in a very traditional mindset by building a legacy of distinct work, carefully expanding his ambitions in sync with his expository needs, and on Way Out Weather, those ambitions coalesce. It is heavily rooted in traditional forms, but feeds into ostensibly all of Gunn’s past obsessions with Eastern music and the avant-garde, taking a psychedelic paintbrush to the plain canvas of folk. No logic leap is unfounded, no possibility left unexplored; Gunn emerges as a subversively skilled voice more than capable of fronting a full band, artfully coloring in the spaces between psych, blues, folk, and rock, and occasionally finding new colors in the process.

To hear a composition by Steve Gunn means hearing an immense mass of guitars — acoustic and electric, some plucked and some strummed — leaping around in a wiry ballet of tones. These guitars move like trained animals: they sometimes trot, but mostly leap, playfully, anticipating every movement and moving swiftly from verse to chorus to bridge in unbroken waves, commanded by Gunn’s impressive pedigree — he’s a virtuoso guitarist, former Violator (Kurt Vile) and Black Twig Picker/Dirt Oak-er, with collabs ranging from drummer John Truscinski to exotica-avant-pop wonder Mike Cooper. To listen to Way Out Weather is to hear one of modern folk’s pioneers condense everything he can do with a guitar into eight perfect dances, lush patterns that pivot with the grace and forethought of someone who has been rehearsing their steps for nine years. To do so, he’s joined by the largest backing band he’s had to date, which features old members Truscinski, Jason Meager, and Justin Tripp, as well as Nathan Bowles on banjo, James Elkington on lap steel, Mary Lattimore on harp, and Jimy SeiTang adding electronic touches.

Notes on Way Out Weather form pointillist figures that can change shape in seconds from genre, from key, and from places of peace to stirring movement or melancholy, as on title track “Way Out Weather.” A prime cut of mope folk, the track limps along a steel pedal line with the slow resolve of a sunrise, setting a precedent for the album’s emotional balancing act. Elsewhere, songs are full of space and clarity. There appears to always be at least two stringed instruments playing at any given time on “Wildwood,” a polyphonic assemblage that turns one repeated guitar line into a five-minute volley. Occasionally with songs like this, it can seem as if Gunn is trying on a new form only for it to be offset by a hundred different ideas. On “Tommy’s Conga,” psych-rock is served up at first naively and timidly, but this tension is diffused with a bout of impish soloing.

On “Atmosphere,” he coos through a Leslie speaker, pairing Lattimore’s harp with guitar and SeiTang’s ambient drones, turning potential energy to kinetic motion in a prancing, shuffling outro. His voice is gruff, dazed, but soulful and as pliable as his guitars; when plainspoken lyricism fails to do the trick, he’ll resort to more impressionistic tactics, occasionally ending stanzas in literal sighs. “Shadow Bros” is probably the only song here that ends in the same place it begins, a shimmering waltz underscored by Gunn’s ruminative lyrics, wishing peace of mind through exasperated gasps.

It takes a certain kind of faith in a folk singer-songwriter like Steve Gunn to deliver another fantastic record so soon after Time Off, which was in its own right a small wonder. I mean, it takes substantial faith in any band to assume they will produce quality work every year, but especially with artists working in the well-trod paths of folk and folk rock. Folk music often runs contrary to the way we tend to view music in 2014, where it seems as if each new release is unwittingly penultimate, as a harbinger of some incoming, surely perfect next record. Way Out Weather is a sonically dense record — Gunn’s de facto opus by breadth and scope — but lyrically it is impersonal, preoccupied by small pleasures and moments of private reflection that, while individually beautiful and poetic, do not suggest a self-aware attempt at making a masterpiece. Instead, they sound like one guy just happy to add something new to the conversation.

Links: Steve Gunn - Paradise Of Bachelors

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