James McNew (Dump, Yo La Tengo) Talks Steve Gunn’s Time Off

As tropes go, the "vastly talented psychedelic/folk guitarist making fantastic records" is enjoying one hell of a heady showing these days.

As tropes go, the “vastly talented psychedelic/folk guitarist making fantastic records” is enjoying one hell of a heady showing these days. With the exception of an inevitably threatened, enraged Pete Seeger (or maybe a confused ca. 1985 Del Fuegos), it’s really to everyone’s benefit that the United Guild of Folk Music Standards and Practices doesn’t seem too vigilant about enforcing any boundaries on its genre. This has always allowed for some truly exceptional mutations and explorations into more psychedelic, avant garde, and/or pop terrain. NYC guitar virtuoso Steve Gunn is one such heathen voyager. On Time Off, he has assembled what is either a fine album, or a very solid homemade time machine. I honestly cannot tell whether this record is something that was just recorded recently or if it’s a newly unearthed lowered-fidelity private-press basement-folk gem by some beardy dudes from the Santa Rosa area in June of 1973. Either way, it’s great. (Spoiler alert: it’s the former — and, as it turns out, way more affordable than if it were the latter).

The overall sound of Gunn’s sixth (or perhaps tenth) album is dusty and warm and vibrant. Its six songs are based around Gunn’s singing and gorgeous (mostly-) acoustic guitar playing, supported unwaveringly by Justin Tripp (bass) and John Truscinski (drums). Together they play as though they are of one mind, maintaining a thoughtful, almost Happy End-like rhythm section. The album’s not a shredder’s showcase by any means; it’s the sound and feel of a very good band playing together. Nor is it a songwriterly, dear-diary, story-song, murder-ballad lyric bonanza, either. The songs — five with singing, and one droning, dizzying instrumental co-starring the fearless cello tone of Helena Espvall — are luminous, blooming, meditative chants; they have simple, sweetly-mumbled vocal melodies with a low word count. The whole production is just beautiful, without being the slightest bit precious.

Gunn’s playing has a humble, searching, spiritual quality, calling over time through repetition. He’s a confident, insightful, and incredibly subtle player. His technique is strong and he’s able to incorporate it into his songwriting so naturally — the way the guitar sets up the mood of the entire album on the opening track “Water Wheel” is phenomenal. His soloing is understated and mesmerizing; absorb it as it climbs gradually and naturally out of the center of a song, just like it does on “Old Strange.” In every second of this record, particularly during the soloing, you can feel the group listening to each other and moving together. There’s also some terrific, sympathetic electric guitar playing; check the band achieving invisible liftoff during the break on the capsule-sized ballroom jam “New Decline.”

If you are a fan of folk music, Happy End’s Kazemachi Roman, Jerry Garcia’s Garcia, Sun City Girls’Torch of the Mystics or other records where people play guitars, guitars, or songs and music in general, or if you hate folk music, then that’s great. I can’t really think of anybody who wouldn’t be pretty into this excellent record.

James McNew is a member of Yo La Tengo. You can follow him on Twitter here.