Steve Gunn: Way Out Weather

Say what you will about the hyper-speed of modern life—it doesn’t matter to Steve Gunn. He plays his guitar with a traditional precision, his eyes gazing at the neck, his fingers moving limberly around the frets, a thumb pick doing the most economical work. He’s austere as someone with no need to go anywhere anytime soon. His songs stretch and loom like a dust storm. Time, it seems, bows to him. 

Gunn’s career shows a similar sense of patience: zoomed out, it looks like a 9-year crescendo, whose highlights include his earliest limited-run solo guitar improvisations, his work as a duo with drummer John Truscinski, a sideman in Kurt Vile’s band, the spine of the psych-folk supergroup Black Dirt Oak, on up to last year’s Time Off. That last record was a statement, casting Gunn as not just an instrumentalist, but a damn fine songwriter, too, as ambling, cyclical guitars loped and folded among verses, choruses, bridges, and his doleful baritone. They were simple songs, produced with plenty of dust and hiss all over the tracks, and Time Off was Gunn squinting at something big on the horizon.

His latest, Way Out Weather, is the fully formed pinnacle of his career. With a full band and plenty of instrumentation behind him, the care he puts into every nook and cranny of a song is evident. It’s lush but without lacquer, detailed without being dense. These songs live in hollowed out holes of America’s past; it’s as easy to imagine him playing in front of a disused gas station off an Oklahoma highway as it is to hear his band booming out of a roadhouse on the Mississippi Delta. At times, there’s so many guitar tracks it it feels like in the middle of a pickup jam session with Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman, and John Fahey.

Among the strides Gunn has made on Way Out Weather is his singing voice. His baritone has a perfect character to it, somewhere between Lou Reed circa Loaded and a toothless barfly who occasionally breaks into song. He falls off the ends of notes as if the energy to sing them is out of reach, yet he avoids the kind of droll, wondering vocal style used so liberally and effectively by his contemporaries Adam Granduciel and Vile. Instead, Gunn hones in on every pitch, like on the the lilting waltz of “Shadow Bros”, which is the closest thing you’d call a traditional folk song here. 

There’s so much space inside these songs: the opening title track is a six-minute stroll through tendrils of guitars—a lap steel in the background, a strummed acoustic just beside it, a picked acoustic just in ahead of that, and a clean Fender lead right up front. Even when these sounds aren’t washing over you, like the simple country blues riff that runs through “Wildwood”, hearing these melodies is a delight. He sings of private rivers, slowly moving light, fast nights, long days, and moving inside dreams.

It’s not all swaths of guitars and natural nostalgia, though: Gunn turns it up with “Drifter”, a balled up and electric stomper, and Way Out Weather closes with an excellent climax, “Tommy’s Congo”, a swirl of psych, krautrock, Malian folk, and a slight nod to Bob Dylan’s cadence on “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. Gunn may have been more experimental-leaning on Cantos de Lisboa, his collaboration with Mike Cooper, but this song gathers up all his improvisational tendencies and eclectic influences, bringing unheard textures to his music that are somehow still cut from the same cloth. He closes the album in a voice that’s never sounded more certain: “Steady eyes on the crowd to see what’s going down/ Never once looked down at what they’re playin’/ Never look down at what you need to do.” His eyes are trained far somewhere far in the distance, waiting for what’s next.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork