Guitarist Steve Gunn’s newest release, “Eyes On The Lines,” is another evolution in his natural progression from obscure backwoods picker to celebrated contemporary.
The gifted musician slowly has been gaining a national following over the past couple of years thanks to his distinct style of playing that is expansive in nature, yet technically efficient. His playing is always cognizant of the melody and feel of the song and his solos support the music more than spotlight his proficiency. He is the guitarist equivalent of a snowboarder who shreds the natural lines of the mountain for cliffs to jump or downed trees to rail rather than hit the made-for-GoPro terrain park that sets you up in a predetermined flow.
“Eyes On The Lines” is Gunn’s seventh solo album and adds to an already extensive catalog. Besides his solo work he has also collaborated with Appalachian string-band Black Twig Pickers, English improvisational guitarist Mike Cooper and ragamuffin rocker Kurt Vile, being a part of his backing band The Violators. He’s got the chops and his ability to create distinct soundscapes places him in the company of other contemporary six-string architects like Ryley Walker and William Tyler.
The guitarist’s earlier solo work tends to gravitate toward long-form acoustic musings, singular and testimonial. “Way Out Weather” in 2014 was a sonic shift toward having a more collective, band-based sound that added weight and color to Gunn’s songs. “Eyes On The Lines” takes a step further in that direction and is the most precise of his albums, with most of the songs falling below the five-minute mark in relatively tight compositions. If “Way Out Weather” is Gunn meandering with his band in search of something not yet known, “Eyes On The Lines” is taking the band out on an adventurous road trip to hit some favorite destinations.
The album feels like it is meant to be heard on the road. The opening “Ancient Jules” cedes this much as Gunn’s intro picking has the warming optimism of a car turning off familiar roads onto unknown asphalt, singing in his awkwardly smooth voice “You were lost on the road from a different way.” Gunn stays within the vein of the melody while imparting some nifty little licks before taking a jubilant, extended solo that heads for the horizon.
Hitting the highway in search of something fruitful is a theme that runs through the album and is echoed again in the delightful “Full Moon Tide,” where he sings “out on the road they just don’t care / all kinds of heads will roll out there.” “The Drop” is a literal story from the road of truckers passing through landscapes, their “eyes on the lines,” as they contemplate their journey in life. Gunn’s gentle electric strumming puts the listener in a lazy daze meant for watching the miles stream by through a car window.
Gunn’s soft voice and compassionate picking are put to good use on the charming “Night Wander” as it wraps you in the lunar rays of his guitar playing. It would be hard to find a song that so clearly encapsulates the feel of wandering beneath the moon at night, and its easy pace sets the mood for the last third of the album. Within this last third, though, the excitement of the road trip has eased and the miles ahead feel a little more obligatory than adventurous. The songs are still beautiful and crafted with expert fingers but sonically speaking they don’t bring anything new to the table.
“Eyes On The Lines” is perfect for putting some distance between yourself and whatever keeps you stagnant. It is not an escape but rather an adventure that continues as long you want.
- Steve Gunn
“Eyes On The Lines”
Label: Matador Records
Release: June 3, 2016
Notable Tracks: “Night Wander,” “The Drop,” “Ancient Jules”