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Steve Gunn, ‘Time Off’ (Paradise of Bachelors)

Steve Gunn / Photo by Constance Mensh
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Steve Gunn’s guitar playing is undoubtedly original, though his languorous fingerpicking style brings up John Fahey comparisons, for sure, not to mention Nick Drake. Intricacy amidst delicacy. Not that Drake ever would’ve conceived the rough-and-tumble blues “New Decline,” or infused it with the shaky rhythm of someone furtively trying to put on a pair of jeans with big holes in the knees.

But on Gunn’s new Time Off, trailing almost a dozen records released in runs of fewer than 800 copies each, opener “Water Wheel” is pure Pink Moon, despite doubling the length of anything on that record. It starts in the middle, like he’s been playing the pattern over and over since well before recording began. Gunn sings like a post-chillwave Evan Dando — when you can make out his close-throated mumbles, he’s “drinking out a hollow log,” perfect for the music’s Winter’s Bone languidity.

It’s a sure fit for a member of Kurt Vile’s backing band, which has to recreate onstage the music’s patchwork perpetual motion while Vile’s voice falls apart atop. But fans who prefer Vile’s knottier 2011 album Smoke Ring for My Halo to this year’s more beach-y travelogue Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze might find Time Off a meatier alternative. Gunn adds body and blues to a wispy starkness reminiscent of Bill Callahan, and noodles with his guitar the way Bon Iver frosted a cabin with layers of his voice.

Even when Gunn fries up an electric solo on “New Decline,” the drums are mixed to the back like silverware being thrashed around a bar kitchen. His sly, muted vocals disintegrate and replenish as they please. Dynamics or structure are not a major concern; these songs sound happy to just get the ignition working. On “Old Strange,” the only rhythmic device sounds like a distant garbage truck, while Gunn pulls from the Lee Ranaldo handbook of deep-woods melodies. Fahey is echoed in the length of these six placid séances — an unhurried 40 minutes. But Gunn is actually hooky, with the sweet, twinkling guitar figure from “Lurker” sustaining itself for nearly six unbroken minutes after the intro. “Found a spot to kill time and look around,” he sings, and that’s what Time Off sounds like: a resting place, both for the riffs that this sideman needed to exorcise and a comfy little alcove for us to hear them played, with care and patience.