[26 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Cantos de Lisboa is the latest in the RVNG series FRKWYS, which pairs contemporary artists with musicians that influenced them. Pairing Steve Gunn and Mike Cooper on this 11th installment of the series couldn’t have come at a better time. The two are now labelmates on Paradise of Bachelors. Steve Gunn is just a year or so removed from his breakthrough record, Time Off, and Cooper’s classic early-‘70s albums Trout Steel and Places I Know/The Machine Gun Co. were just reissued to critical acclaim. What the two players prove on Cantos de Lisboa, though, is that this is no mere victory lap or toss-off release. The two connect deeply in this music and deliver an exciting, unpredictable set.
“Saudade Do Santos-o-Vehlo” opens the record with a curious back and forth between the players. It begins with an intricate, pastoral acoustic roll. The song has a melodic center, but the guitars stretch out and experiment with space. The results are tuneful but tangled. Cooper starts to lay some slide work over the soft opening of the song, and all of a sudden there’s a wild-eyed edge to the song. The nascent wandering early on in the track yields this discovery, this minor explosion of sound as Gunn’s guitar whips up its own churn and Cooper responds in kind with unpredictable slide phrasings.
It’s a track at once traditional, building on folk, blues, and American Primitive structures, and dynamic. That combination sets the table for the rest of the record. “Pena Panorama” doubles down on the blues influence, with the pulsing repetition of chords and the shuffle of Cooper’s slide work. But there’s also looping notes running backwards, a distant shadowy drone, that coats the song in an otherworldly feel. “Song for Charlie” is the most challenging piece here, screeching and pulsing through feedback drone and the slapping buzz of the hard-played acoustic in the background. It’s a hard left from the tracks that came before, but also a logical move for Cooper and Gunn, two players ever trying to push at space and layers in their songs, ever searching for new shifts in their expansive set of skills. It’s also a song that leads, oddly, to the most traditionally structured song, the excellent “Pony Blues”. It’s got a deep blues run, but the two add their subtle humming textures and twist phrasings just enough to remind you of the Tacoma School of playing. It also features Cooper’s bellowing voice singing the aching tale at the heart of the song.
Cantos de Lisboa may feel disjointed with all these musical shifts, but Gunn and Cooper are smart enough to lay faint connective tissue between songs. So the squall and thrum of “Lampedusa 2013” reminds you both of “Song for Charlie” and the clearer parts of “Pena Panorama”. The listener seems to be along with the pair of musicians, discovering with them the strange corners and eccentricities that make these songs come alive. It’s easy to see the musical visions Gunn and Cooper share, but in playing together they also enhance each other’s skills and push each other to new places. This record is exciting yet rooted in tradition, comforting yet willing to trouble you, shake you out of your expectations. But, mostly, it’s a fascinating musical conversation between musicians from two different generations of experimental music. Gunn and Cooper remind us of what has stayed the same, even as it all seems to keep changing.