If Black Twig Pickers’ revivified traditional Appalachian music seems both timeless and timely, in our post-Fahey world, it’s Steve Gunn’s time right now, no doubt. Last year’s Way Out Weather (Paradise of Bachelors) is a jewel of what Michael Hann, writing for the Guardian, accurately nails as “cosmic Americana”. But although he sounds right at home with The Black Twig Pickers, a group with shared American east coast roots (Gunn hails from Pennsylvanian, the Pickers from Virginia), there’s a restlessness to Gunn’s engagement with the music that transcends the obviousness of the Americana tag.
The release in 2013 of Gunn’s solo recording debut, Time Off (Paradise of Bachelors), was accompanied by other, more exploratory work; improvisational collaborations with British folk-blues guitarist and songwriter turned improv auteur Mike Cooper, and one of Black Twig Pickers’ multi-instrumentalists, Mike Gangloff. These meetings yielded a brace of excellent recordings in, respectively, Cantos de Lisboa (Freakways) and Melodies for a Savage Fix (Important Records). So Seasonal Hire can be heard not just as a satisfying stand-alone album, but, more profitably, in the context of a purple patch of creativity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the reuniting of Gunn and Gangloff, Seasonal Hire follows up beautifully from Melodies for a Savage Fix. Where that album was mostly a laid-back marriage of psych, folk and drone, its short last piece, “Dive For the Pearl (Cian’s Tracksuit)” plays as spry and almost celebratory, as if in toast to the session’s success. And Seasonal Hire‘s freewheeling title piece picks up right where “Dive For the Pearl” left off.
Taking up the whole second side of the vinyl edition, it’s experimental only in the most unforced way, with all feet still firmly planted on the stoop. Despite Nathan Bowles’ focus on bowed cymbals and sruti box, it’s not the “extended ramble” that the album’s promotion suggests. Aided by Gangloff on singing bowls and gongs, Bowles (who also plays alongside Gangloff in Pelt) creates a harmonic haze that buzzes around Gunn’s tightly-patterned fingerpicking and Isak Howell’s banjo. Only after a steady ten minutes of strumming music, Gangloff lays down a topcoat of fiddle that introduces new currents, subsequently slowing and spreading the music into a delta of deposited particulates. At the end it’s just the main channel of Gangloff and Gunn, flowing on together, combining beautifully.
Where “Seasonal Hire” is credited to ‘Twigs-Gunn’, and was presumably improvised (it was recorded live at least, without overdubs or amplification), the album’s other, first half comprises one traditional song plus a composition apiece by Gunn and Black Twigs’ Mike Gangloff and Sally Anne Morgan (who sat out on “Seasonal Hire”). Each piece has its own distinctive character.
Gangloff’s opening shot, “Dive for the Pearl” is a straightforward accord between Gunn’s guitar and Gangloff and Bowles’ banjo and slide banjo. While Morgan’s fiddle shadows the banjos’ cyclic reel, Howell’s harmonica adds vocal commentary. It’s simple, effective, and infectiously uplifting.
The fiddle that introduces the traditional “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” hints at a more mournful mood, but once it picks up the pace and Bowle’s banjo lopes into the mix it develops a soused folk dance vibe. It’s certainly earthier than Flatt & Scruggs’ version. Gangloff takes the main vocal. He’s in throaty voice, and that’s in keeping with a lack of artifice in the direct but richly textured group sound.
Morgan’s “Cardinal 51” could be another traditional. It’s the album’s most atmospheric song, given a sepia tinge by a spacious production, which suits a loose weave of instrumentation. While the fiddle and banjo combine in insistent ceilidh, Gunn runs slide guitar barbs through Bowles’ bowed cymbal drone, which threads through the mix into a brief, atmospheric coda.
Fine as the rest of Seasonal Hire is, Gunn’s “Trailways Ramble” (also the last song on his Time Off album) is perhaps its highlight. What sets Gunn’s music apart is the pearlescence of his liquid, cyclical guitar figures, and the detached transparency of his voice. Compared to Morgan, whose voice, at least the way it was recorded for “Cardinal 51”, evokes the attenuated sound of degraded old ‘American primitive’ recordings, Gunn sounds vividly present, if oddly interiorised. Gangloff’s contributions on jaw harp and tanpura evoke both jug band and indigenous Australian music, emphasising the sense of uncanny.
Among the Black Twig Pickers’ more traditionally-rooted material, Gunn sounds abstracted from time, dreamlike, wrapped up in a journey set to continue, or repeat, long after the music has stopped.
Steve Gunn guitar, slide guitar, vocals; Mike Gangloff fiddle, slide fiddle, banjo, jaw harp, tanpura, singing bowls, vocals; Sally Anne Morgan fiddle, banjo, vocals; Nathan Bowles banjo, slide banjo, bowed cymbal, sruti box; Isak Howell mouth harp, banjo.
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