Steve Gunn has made quite a name for himself over the past few years, especially with his last two records, Time Off and Way Out Weather, both issued by Paradise of Bachelors. But in all his solo success, it’s easy to forget he’s still a dynamic collaborator. He worked with Hiss Golden Messenger on Golden Gunn, recorded with Mike Cooper last year, and released Melodies for a Savage Fix, an excellent improvisation with Black Twig Pickers member Mike Gangloff.
The Pickers have themselves made an impressive mark as an instrumental part of the revival of American traditional and folk music, particularly on their fine album Rough Carpenters. There’s a natural kinship between Gunn and the Pickers. They’ve recorded together before. Picker Nathan Bowles tours as part of Gunn’s band and also put out an excellent solo record on Paradise of Bachelors last year. More importantly, though, both Gunn and the Pickers like to both honor tradition and stretch out structures, rediscovering as much as they are experimenting along the way.
Seasonal Hire finds Gunn and the Black Twig Pickers toeing that line between the time honored and the avant-garde. The five tracks here — four originals and a traditional tune — show a deep connection between the players and invite the listener into their inherent intimacy. Like all the Black Twig Pickers recordings, there is no amplification here. All the tracks are recorded live in studio, and there are no overdubs. The rough carpentry of these songs lets the dust fly, lets the grain show, but the songs are all the purer, all the sweeter, for their scuffs.
Opener “Dive for the Pearl” starts with a pastoral roll of stringed instruments. It’s almost unassuming at first, the plucking percussive but not aggressive. But as the phrasing repeats, over and over, it also grows in intensity, as if the players are feeling each other out and then cohering together. Harmonica joins the fray and, one by one, the instruments break from the foundation. The song whips itself up into a frenzy so slowly and deliberately, and with such a front-porch immediacy, you almost don’t notice how tangled the layers become, how intricate the playing gets even as its holds its shape. This is a common theme in Seasonal Hire: pushing at the borders without ever quite spilling over them.
The Gangloff sung “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” adds a bluesy turn to the proceedings, and etches out clear song shapes in ways its predecessor doesn’t. We move from verse to instrumental, back and forth not like a call and response but more like a body and its shadow. But as Sally Anne Morgan’s voice trails behind Gangloff’s and the fiddle work shifts from gliding across the track to raking against its grain, you see even the most basic folk structure can show its cracks, even in the most traditional sounds there’s a sense of fresh experimentation here. The cohesion of Gunn’s rolling guitar work here and the Pickers’ organic sound almost renders Gunn unnoticeable in these records. At first blush, anyway. As the group reworks “Trailways Ramble”, from Gunn’s Time Off album, it’s clear that he’s not missing so much as he is deeply in the cut. On Time Off, “Trailways Ramble” was a narcotic, dreamy final exploration. Here’s, it’s an earthen romp. You can imagine the dust on boots more than the hidden spaces of the mind. The band is at its most energetic on the song, punctuating Gunn’s smooth playing with jaw harp and washboard, not to mention some of the most percussive string playing you’re likely to hear.
These first four tracks show the band capable of taking songs and making them places for discovery, moments far larger than the sum of their parts. The album closes, though, with the 16-plus-minute title track, a meditative instrumental number that is equal parts folk expansion and raga spirituality. Gunn’s careful guitar phrasing opens up the song, ringing out so you can feel the space of the room around him. Into that space, the other players slowly arrive. Instruments buzz is the atmosphere, then test themselves out — the repeated plink of the jaw harp, the careful roll of the banjo — until they all find their footing around the three-minute mark. The song blooms outward from there, speeding forward as it also expands upward. The playing becomes frenzied, chaotic. The textures collide and confuse one another, only to open up into new, larger spaces in the song’s second half. Despite its long running time and its sense of improvisation over melody, “Seasonal Hire” never loses its shape. There’s always some instrument — the sliding chords of a guitar, or the repeated notes of a banjo — to keep you rooted as the fiddle blasts that negative space from the beginning of the track wide open, or as the rattle of harmonica coats every other instrument like so much dust.
The nature of these sorts of collaborative records is to think of them as secondary, an offshoot of what these guys really do: namely, Gunn’s solo career and the Pickers’ proper albums. Seasonal Hire, though, argues for a more revered place. It is a beautiful collaboration, a wonderful platform for both the Pickers and Gunn to flex their muscles. But it’s also a major work by all musicians involved, a brilliant statement on where traditional American and folk music is, the promise and energy it contains, and where it could go. Which is to say, in the hands of these musicians, anywhere.