Eyes on the Lines
It was the great, oft-maligned ’70s soft-rock band Bread who sang, “Who draws the crowd and plays so loud? Baby, it’s the guitar man. Who’s gonna steal the show, you know? Baby, it’s the guitar man.” Four decades later and that’s a thought nearly as antiquated dropping a dime in a phone booth. For a select few, though, who generally draw far from the largest crowds but who are still able to steal the show, the guitar remains the most expressive of instruments, one on par only with human voice with regards to elasticity and the transformation of intangible emotion into something palpable.
Steve Gunn is well versed in this. His guitar playing checks all the right boxes as far as what it means to shred in 2016. Ditch Trilogy Neil Young? Blind Joe Death–era John Fahey? Long-haired Richard Thompson? Short-haired Tom Verlaine? It’s all there in his galloping, tuneful fretboard journeys.
Gunn grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and moved deeper into the city as his musical tastes grew, embracing early on the controlled chaos of hardcore. From there you’re just one bong hit away from the heady, slowed-down drones found on Gunn’s early GHQ projects. That band’s amplified ragas put him in the same orbit as Jack Rose, who Gunn befriended shortly before Rose passed away. Rose, as time goes by, can now be seen as a shining light in the realm of guitar workmen who embraced not only John Fahey but also Charley Patton and La Monte Young—a true visionary of the six string.
You can hear echoes of Rose, but also fellow Philly cohort Kurt Vile, on “Nature Driver,” a track parked halfway through Gunn’s latest, Eyes on the Lines. It’s one of many songs on his unhurried and glorious new album that feels like a four-minute portal into endless, rural psychedelic bliss. “Heavy Sails” comes out firing like The Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” meets The Durutti Column: intricate, crystalline, and a little bit hairy.
“Conditions Wild” shows Gunn as a jangling singer/songwriter; it’s a kind of exploratory pop song built around circular riffing and his most hook-ish verses to date. Songs like the opener “Ancient Jules” showcase his modus operandi: first, establish a nervy and sun-bleached riff. Then repeat it. Add even-keeled vocals (he sings in an extremely mellow way—like Thurston Moore at a karaoke bar), and return to earlier riff after going cosmic for a few minutes. Eyes on the Lines does just that, focusing on the vanishing point up ahead and filling the way there with bucolic and billowing guitar workouts and cryptic observations. Top Gunn!