Steve Gunn - “Water Wheel”
While a few of Steve Gunn’s former collaborators — Magik Markers, Kurt Vile — were sweating it out in packed rock clubs at this year’s Hopscotch festival, the guitarist performed in the rose garden of the Raleigh Little Theatre at North Carolina State University. A few miles outside the festival’s downtown hub of dingy dive bars and slick outdoor stages, Gunn and the other members of his trio — bassist Justin Tripp and drummer John Truscinski — meandered through much of the material on Time Off, performing casually but intensely on an old stone pavilion in front of a backdrop of verdant oaks and a sky painted a luxuriant shade of Carolina blue.
It couldn’t have been a more perfect venue. Though written largely about characters in Gunn’s Brooklyn neighborhood, Time Off gets out of the city, eschewing hustle and bustle for relaxed ease and gauzy pastoral hues. Time Off is redolent of the outdoors, its languid tempos suggesting the lazy currents of back-woods rivers, its cascading melodies intimating rolling hills. Indeed, its metaphysical lyrics, too, suggest unregimented rustic time, whether Gunn’s cooing about water bumping a water wheel into motion on “Water Wheel” (“The water wheel’s constant turn / Open views and days to burn”) or even in the vagrant anthem, “The Lurker” (“Find a spot / Kill some time / Look around”).
As a guitarist, Gunn often draws comparisons to Jack Rose and John Fahey, but Time Off swaps the oft-busy playing of American Primitivism — a style Gunn can certainly play well, and a style that certainly seeps into his helical progressions — for undemanding, even rote verse-chorus-verse structures. Gunn, a musical polyglot, here works in the vernacular of the quieter parts of the American South, imbuing a little urbanity to sleepy Appalachian twang. Its bucolic, rollicking folk recalls The Grateful Dead, but its innate granularity — its players, remember, are avant-garde guns-for-hire — defies any tendency toward granola gaudiness. And while the connections to Southern California country-rock are intrinsic (the pysch-tinged vamp of “Street Keeper” suggests American Beauty, and the extended boogie of “New Decline” is directly descendent of Creedence’s choogle), Gunn’s playing on Time Off owes just as much to British folk-blues — Bert Jansch, certainly; side B of Led Zeppelin III, definitely; maybe even a little Nick Drake.
As pleasant as Gunn is a guitarist, he’s an equally low-key vocalist, his flat delivery and barbiturate baritone unobtrusive and lackadaisical — just kind of there, often, buried slightly beneath Trucinski’s and well below his own gently spiraling guitar in the mix. It’s kind of a shame, actually, as Gunn’s Impressionist vignettes are quite interesting on close listen, showcasing Gunn’s marked maturity as a songwriter. See, again, “The Lurker,” which appeared on a Three Lobed compilation in 2011 in a 20-minute version; here, it clocks in at just under eight. While Time Off’s six tracks just miss the 40-minute mark, the album never feels overlong, Gunn’s luxurious guitar work — buoyed by Tripp and Truscinski’s knack for groove — and densely detailed workouts are so entrancing that they seem to fly by quickly. (Truscinski’s drum work is especially good here, his elasticity filled with great use of unusual accents, particularly in the implied half-time shuffle at the end of “The Lurker.”)
In a year of great records from avant-garde guitarists (see: Daniel Bachman’s Seven Pines; William Tyler’s Impossible Truth; Glenn Jones’ My Garden State; and even Golden Gunn, Gunn’s collaboration with Hiss Golden Messenger) filled with fantastical and frenzied flourishes, Time Off thrives by going native, by taking it easy, by trading fiery interplay for cool, casual vibe. These back-porch barn-burners rarely put the pedal to the metal, but when the ride is this smooth and the scenery this good, who would want to do that?
By Patrick Wall