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Steve Gunn
Way Out Weather John S.W. MacDonald , September 30th, 2014 14:54

Last year's Time Off, the first widely released solo effort from Brooklyn songwriter and guitarist Steve Gunn, was a minor revelation – a flawless blend of master finger-pickers like Robbie Basho and early 70s rock; Led Zeppelin's III reimagined as psych-folk mantra. The record's dusty, sun-faded production (think Fairport Convention and early Simon & Garfunkel) proved the perfect match for Gunn's intimate portrayals of the small-town characters inhabiting his big-city neighbourhood. Gunn's homespun jams felt lived in and well loved.

With Time Off, Gunn essentially outed himself as a songwriter. Before then he had largely been known as a guitar virtuoso and sideman, if one with distinctly avant-garde leanings – both through his largely instrumental solo work, all released on tiny labels, and the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, his drone-psych project with drummer John Truscinski. When Gunn wasn't working on his own material, he sat in with Kurt Vile And The Violators on tour.

Way Out Weather – released, like Time Off, on North Carolina label Paradise Of Bachelors – is an even stronger argument for Gunn the songwriter. The jams remain, of course, but now they compete with more than a few conventional verse-chorus-verse song structures. Gunn's gravely, much-improved baritone rides higher in the mix, buoyed by sharper, bolder production. And instead of just bass, drums and guitar – Time Off's primary ingredients – there's also organ, banjo, harp, lap steel, and even a few synths. Gunn assembled a full band for this record, and it shows. Where Time Off felt hushed and insular, music you discovered in a basement milk crate, Way Out Weather is big-hearted and expansive, its windows thrown open to the world.

For the most part, the roomier production works in Gunn's favour. Suggesting the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty, 'Milly's Garden' juxtaposes gorgeously sun-dappled open-tuned guitar with Gunn's bleak description of his protagonist, a woman (it's not entirely clear) hard on her luck, but looking for a way out. "Your faith is savage, and your mind is damaged / You're more than halfway there" Gunn sings, while a slide guitar follows him around like a shaggy dog.

If 'Milly's Garden' is perhaps the best thing Gunn's ever done, the title track isn't far behind. Gunn imagines "waves […] crashing calm and free" over a cool breeze of softly finger-picked guitar, lap steel, and Truscinski's supple percussion. Way Out Weather was largely written on tour and there's an undercurrent of ecological anxiety running throughout, as if Gunn couldn't help but be concerned by what he saw out the window. But here on the title track, Gunn seems content just to let the ocean roll on by, whatever the future may bring: "Way out weather is a common song / Pulling tides to show what's wrong."

Way Out Weather's lines and contours are beautifully rendered. But there are times when Gunn's songs don't benefit from the extra exposure, when one misses Time Off's murkier, more forgiving production. With acoustic guitar, banjo and harp all jockeying for position, 'Shadow Bros' ultimately fails to congeal – a shame considering Gunn's lilting vocal melody. And track to track, Way Out Weather never quite finds its rhythm, jumping abruptly from acoustic reveries to mid-tempo rockers to New Age ambiance.

Sill, the record's ambition is much to be admired. While it isn't quite the leap forward that Time Off was, Way Out Weather unquestionably accomplishes its goal: fully transforming Gunn from a guitar hero into a respected songwriter. That's no easy feat.

If there's a way forward for Gunn, it's hidden in the folds of the album's closing track, a spiralling, relentlessly inventive jam that combines Krautrock rhythms and hypnotic, Middle Eastern-inflected guitar leads with a bristling vocal performance. 'Tommy's Congo' brings Time Off's soft-focus psych into sharp, thrilling relief; nothing feels fussed over, though everything clearly was – a rigorously produced tune that somehow manages to sound like the easiest thing in the world.