For some time a lynchpin of an exciting, musically promiscuous network of musicians, and specialising in freewheeling, improvisatory scenarios, Steve Gunn now moves in more ostensibly conventional directions.
His previous solo album, Way Out Weather, focused much more closely on his songwriting and Eyes On The Lines continues this development. Here, there is a greater emphasis on the exploratory possibilities of a rock band set up, resulting in a particularly restless energy, with a sense of perpetual motion. The songs are a set of journeys where the final destinations seem elusive, only ever disappearing further into the distance. The overall feeling inspired by this, however, is one of excitement and curiosity rather than frustration. In spite of this superficially more restricted (or at least more streamlined) approach, Gunn’s music feels limitless and open.
Gunn’s trio with John Truscinski (drums) and Justin Tripp (bass) remains the core and backbone of these songs and they have a lithe power and flexibility that imbues the music with both freedom and precision. But perhaps most specific to the success of this particular recording is the expanded overall ensemble. Additional guitarists Jim Elkington and Paul Sukeena provide additional colours and textures in addition to the memorable riffing and relaxed but incandescent improvising. Tracks like Ancient Jules and Full Moon Tide have a relaxed, freewheeling sense of motion and freedom. Whilst it is ostensibly Gunn’s tautest release to date, certainly his most cohesive, Eyes On The Lines still has an appealing looseness and wanderlust. Harpist Mary Lattimore and flautist Jason Meager also make significant, intriguing contributions that take the music on more unexpected detours.
Whilst the lyrics often speak of journeys and of being on tour (“there’s a constant motion, makes you feel like the ocean” – on Nature Driver), the music often seems to encourage patience, attention to detail and an appreciation of the immediate environment. This is appropriate that the album’s more improvisatory, exploratory impulses require immersion ‘in the moment’. Sometimes these moments are kept on a fairly tight leash (the solos on Heavy Sails are disarmingly concise, for example) – but this only increases the importance of this immediacy and spontaneity, with the musicians have to communicate a great deal within a tight, organised framework.
Whilst this is certainly now immediately recognisable as a Steve Gunn album, Gunn’s increased confidence and fluidity (particularly vocally) also makes Eyes On The Lines a more distinctive and assured proposition. Gunn still channels the likes of Bob Dylan and Bill Fay, but now in a more relaxed and convincing style that is more his own. His deceptively straightforward vocal melodies now take centre stage alongside the gently duelling guitars, not least on the surprisingly infectious Conditions Wild.
Whilst the production on Eyes On The Lines largely seems naturalistic and unobtrusive, close listening reveals some important and effective decisions. The panning and mixing of the various guitars achieves an efforless, often shimmering blend, particularly when both acoustic and electric instruments are deployed (as on the languid, dreamy and intoxicating heat haze of Nature Driver). Whilst the overall sound and mood feel impressively unified, the ensemble also crafts a range of contexts in support of Gunn’s interlocking guitars. There’s the gently nimble, rolling feeling of Park Bench Smile, or the more road-worthy, driving grooves of Ancient Jules or Full Moon Tide. An amiable amble from city to city, Eyes On The Lines emphasises the thrill of the ride, rather than the efficiency of the journey time.