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Steve Gunn & The Black Twig Pickers
Seasonal Hire John S.W. MacDonald , February 18th, 2015 17:46

Steve Gunn is at heart a collaborator and confidant – the guy you always want playing by your side. Though the Brooklyn guitarist's recent solo records, particularly last year's brilliant Way Out Weather, have boosted his profile as a songwriter and frontman, you can find Gunn's name on nearly a decade's worth of releases where he primarily plays the role of musical co-conspirator. He's worked with drummer John Truscinski in the minimalist-psych project, the Gunn-Truscinski Duo; he's partnered with North Carolina's Hiss Golden Messenger, and more recently with British folk legend Mike Cooper, among others; he's toured with Kurt Vile and the Violators.

All of which is to say that even as Gunn's solo career takes off and he's about to head out on tour with Wilco, it's no surprise that he's releasing yet another collaborative one-off, this time with his buddies in The Black Twig Pickers. The Pickers, a quartet hailing from the rough borderlands between southwest Virginia and West Virginia, play old-time Appalachian folk music that retains a kinship with punk, psych and other more-experimental modern traditions. Gunn, meanwhile, is a virtuoso fingerpicker steeped in those same experimental traditions, along with jazz and Indian raga, who remains deeply influenced by the country blues and Southern mountain music. Seasonal Hire (released on Chicago's legendary Thrill Jockey) maps out the territory where these artists' aesthetic impulses meet and collide.

The album's recording, however, largely took place on the Pickers' home turf in rural southwest Virginia. And the record's mood and atmosphere is all theirs – hothouse fiddle, lonesome harmonica, winking mouth harp, warbling harmonies. As are the recording techniques: Seasonal Hire, like the Pickers' own albums, was recorded live without amplification or overdubs; every track sounds like a first take celebrated with cheap whiskey and big belly laughs.

Over the course of its five songs – one traditional and four original (one of which, 'Dive for the Pearl', appeared in an earlier iteration on a 2013 collaborative LP by Gunn and the Pickers' Mike Gangloff) – Seasonal Hire offers no grand statements and reveals no great mysteries. Ultimately, this is not a particularly ambitious record; no musician is stretched wildly beyond his or her limits. And yet, largely because of its off-hand quality and ease of execution, Seasonal Hire offers moments of intoxicating strangeness and beauty: the mournful fiddle solo that begins 'Don't Let Your Deal Go Down', an old folk tune popularised by banjo wizards like Charlie Poole and Earl Scruggs; Picker Sally Anne Morgan's desolate vocal on 'Cardinal 51', and the song's slow-motion dissolve into a puddle of droning acoustic guitar, harmonica and what sounds like bowed cymbals.

Gunn's contributions are far more evident in the two tracks that comprise the record's second half. 'Trailways Ramble', a meditative, wordless tune that originally appeared on Gunn's 2013 breakthrough Time Off, is reimagined here with a welcome vocal introduction from Gunn himself. And then there's the album-closing title track – a sprawling folk jam led by Gunn's lush 12-string guitar. The tune does largely what you'd expect: simmer and boil over into a hot mess of buzzing fiddle and clucking banjo. But even at 16 minutes plus, it exhilarates more often than not.

As selfish as it may be to say, and as inventive as the Pickers are, it would have been nice to have gotten a little more Gunn here – a few more of his nimble guitar leads, maybe another vocal or two. But of course, that's not the point. Seasonal Hire, like so much of Gunn's (and the Pickers') discography, is about bringing a group of like-minded musicians together as equals to make something new, about crowding into a tiny room with a bunch of microphones and pressing record. Judged on those terms Seasonal Hire is a wild success.

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