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Steve Gunn
Eyes On The Lines Joe Bucciero , June 16th, 2016 09:57

I saw Steve Gunn play a couple times in 2013 hot off the heels of Time Off, his stunning first vocal LP. Backed by drums and bass, the New York guitarist would glide coolly through the material, extending his songs with the lucid, minimalistic, Americana riffing he had shown off on earlier instrumental releases. No matter how freewheeling the music, though, Gunn kept a stolid, even stern expression and generally low profile while he played; every word seemed to come out of his mouth with the utmost care, perhaps betraying his relative inexperience singing on stage.

Two years, another brilliant album (2014's Way Out Weather), a couple international tours, and a fresh Matador contract later, Gunn took a stage not far from where I’d seen him play in 2013. He wore sunglasses and a wide grin. Channeling Bob Dylan, he delivered his cryptic lines with the panache of a world-traveling raconteur, improvising phrasing and breathing new life into now-old favorites. Time Off had sounded like a rock album for the ages the moment it came out, after all; but it (and Gunn) may have been a little too slight to convince the world of that fact. So now we have Eyes on the Lines—the most cohesive, robust, confident, and widely-distributed LP in Gunn's unofficial trilogy—to give Gunn that recognizable rock-star thrust. It's the sound of Gunn smiling in sunglasses, staring out from on high to who-knows-where.

About forty seconds into track one, ‘Ancient Jules’, Gunn and company (the LP features eight other musicians) make their first major statement with a doubled guitar lick—deep and forceful, beyond the slithery and high-pitched guitar maneuvering he trafficked in on his previous two efforts. It’s indeed a subtle leap, though: the song doesn't otherwise diverge much from Gunn's tried-and-true working formula of cascading repeated riffs and limited-range recitations. As before, he crafts a sonic hammock on ‘Ancient Jules’—simultaneously blissful and brimming with potential energy. Swaying in the wind, ready to break: where will we go nextl?

Track three, ‘The Drop’, which functions as the unofficial title track ("eyes on the lines / you know to hold up the mood"), serves as a signpost. Its chorus recalls Way Out Weather's ‘Milly’s Garden’—and though ‘The Drop’ suggests usual influences like Fairport Convention and Manassas, its muscled drum beat introduction and subsequent smarmy blues riff takes Gunn closer to Rolling Stones territory (a feeling aided by the Jagger-like “you know” that escapes his mouth a minute later). Might Gunn and his cohorts—previously a folk rock band par excellence—be shooting for the Stones' self-appointed title of "best rock band in the world"? He’d never say it himself, but the thought hides under each chooglin' guitar solo and expert lick buried in the mix's negative space.

The subsequent "Conditions Wild" builds that case with the most radio-ready chorus Gunn has delivered. The ensuing songs dial back a bit, though, nestling into a comfort zone—perhaps a bit too comfortably, with ‘Heavy Sails’ or ‘Night Wander’ so closely reflecting the methodology of Way Out Weather. But these Side B efforts are still tightly crafted, and they only make album closer, ‘Ark’, stick out. Indeed, slow and pensive, ‘Ark’ possesses the gravity, if not the swooping hook, of "Wild Horses" and songs of that ilk more than previous Gunn ballads. It's moving, verging on sappy, yet smart and peculiar—and like everything Gunn touches, drifts through and around time with breathtaking ease.

Eyes on the Lines's cover is effective. Gunn's music has always had that quality of happening upon something strange-yet-familiar—a geometric shape lost in the woods, untethered to its temporal or material source: easy, simple, artfully perplexing upon further inspection. For all its decades-old reference points, and for all its clear similarities to Gunn's previous two records, Eyes on the Lines sounds alive: the ivy growing out of that sphere, adding color and oxygen to the weathered, though still captivating, form underneath.