Whilst much of the music industry seems to revolve around bluster and hype, ever searching for the biggest sound of the moment, many musicians create the conditions necessary for a more patient and meaningful evolution. Steve Gunn is one such musician, and it feels like the release of Way Out Weather may be his moment – the point at which he moves from being a respected and influential musician operating in a range of contexts, to a player acclaimed more widely for his individual contribution. Gunn is an articulate and nimble guitar player who has worked in an impressive, flighty duo with drummer John Truscinski, briefly as a member of Kurt Vile’s band, in a collaborative project with Mike Cooper and as part of the collective Black Dirt Oak. His own music, as documented on last year’s excellent Time Off and now on this more developed collection, is spiralling and meditative, with a light, dancing quality that neatly combines the concerns of American folk music with a more spontaneous, improvising approach.
This music is incredibly well assembled. A track such as the effortless, fluid sounding Wildwood might have three or four guitar parts, but it still feels airy and spacious. The guitar lines themselves are graceful and melodic, not least on the bright and absorbing Milly’s Garden, and many of them could work comfortably well as contemplative instrumentals. The whole ensemble sounds vibrant and interconnected.
Those already familiar with Gunn’s work will not be surprised by his nuanced arrangements or agile guitar playing. The key developments on Way Out Weather are of course his songwriting and his singing. Gunn’s voice is rarely pitch perfect, but it’s one of those slightly conversational and communicative storytelling voices that works perfectly for his material. The rolling conclusions to his phrases are sometimes reminiscent of Bill Fay, whilst his extensions of particular syllables and emphasis on the end of lines of course hint back to Bob Dylan.
So while there are traditional elements to this music (hints of Laurel Canyon and other classic singer-songwriter traits), there are also strong links to more radical invocations of folk performance (John Fahey, Robbie Basho and others) that, at least in part, lend the music some of its spiritual and contemplative qualities, even when the intensity levels shift up a gear. There’s also a relaxed sense of being in the moment – a sort of understated musical skill that’s strongly in evidence on the gently tumbling Wildwood. Gunn also demonstrates a keen melodic awareness, so even the simplest songs in terms of arrangement, such as Shadow Bros, have a sense of exploration and fun.
Way Out Weather, for all its flirtations with cosmic forces and turbulent skies, is very much a quietly expansive album. Whilst it is undoubtedly a major step forward for Gunn, it moves in very unassuming and intuitive ways. The delightful Fiction is typical – supportive, sensitive brushed drums that are remarkable in their hushed dynamic, a melody deeply embedded within the grain of the song.
Only the final tracks (Atmosphere and Tommy’s Congo) really serve to punctuate Gunn’s carefully sustained mood. Atmosphere pretty much does what it says on the tin, being more greatly focused on texture and mood than on ensemble arrangement. Nevertheless, it shares with the rest of the album a subtly compelling quality. Beginning with a restrained, Sly Stone-esque drum machine patter, Tommy’s Congo builds into a droning, hypnotic and irresistible raga. It’s a surprising and disarming flourish with which to end such a meticulous, absorbing set of songs.