Steve Gunn - The Unseen In Between (Matador Records)

For over a decade, guitarist/vocalist Steve Gunn has been one the American music’s most pivotal figures - conjuring immersive and psychedelic sonic landscapes both live and on record, releasing revered solo albums ranking high on in-the-know end of year lists, alongside exploratory collaborations with artists as diverse as Mike Cooper, Kurt Vile, and Michael Chapman (whose most recent studio album he produced). Gunn is known for telling other people's stories, but on his breakthrough fourth album, The Unseen In Between, he explores his own emotional landscapes with his most complex, fully realized songs to date. The lyrics evoke voyages, tempests (actual and emotional), and a rich cast of characters met along the way -- the work of an artist finding a place of calm in the midst of a storm. Produced by frequent collaborator James Elkington and engineered by Daniel Schlett, the immaculately recorded Unseen forces a reassessment of Gunn’s standing in the pantheon of the era’s great songwriters.

Getting to The Unseen In Between itself was not easy for Gunn. In the summer of 2016, Gunn released Eyes On The Lines, his winning and elliptical debut for Matador. It should have been a triumphant moment, but exactly two weeks later, Gunn’s father and namesake died following a two-year struggle with cancer. During his sickness, he and his son had connected as never before, listening to one another’s experiences and understanding one another’s perspectives; they became not father and son but real friends.

This experience yielded the emotional centerpiece of the album. “Stonehurst Cowboy” is a duet for Gunn’s raw acoustic guitar and spare basslines by Bob Dylan's musical director Tony Garnier, whose featured throughout the album. The song distills the lessons Gunn learned from his father and it is a solemn but tender remembrance, a tribute to his father’s reputation as a tough, wise, and witty guy from far west Philadelphia.

A sense of musical renewal and emotional complexity fits the new songs perfectly; “Luciano” seems to be about the chemistry between a bodega owner and his cat, an unspoken romance of gentle obedience and quiet gestures. But Gunn peers below the relationship’s surface and wonders about the owner's lonely future once the cat is gone, a devastating meditation wrapped in soft strings. And then there’s “Vagabond,” Gunn’s graceful attempt to humanize a rich cast of characters whose lives have gone astray, wanderers who live outside of society’s modern safety net, who pursue “a crooked dream” in spite of what the world expects. Supported by the perfect harmonies of Meg Baird, Gunn finds something lovely in the unloved.

Inspired by contemporary artist Walter De Maria’s Dia Art Foundation-affiliated installation of 400 stainless steel poles atop the high desert of New Mexico, “Lightning Field” considers what we get out of art when it doesn’t work, when lightning does not light up the night for visitors. Opener “New Moon" may begin in the mode of a deep track from Astral Weeks or Fred Neil, with its upright bass and sparse tremolo guitar. But during the song’s final minutes, strings double the melody, and then the guitar rushes headlong, pulling ahead in a wave of ecstatic deliverance. It is a brief but liberating solo, an instant release of tension from the fraught scene Gunn has built, complemented by one of his most arresting vocal performances.

In a final contrast, “Morning is Mended” is an acoustic beauty so resplendent it ranks alongside Sandy Denny or Jackson C. Frank. Buoyed by a melody that sparkles like sunlight on still water, Gunn acknowledges the hardships around him, the feeling of being a “nothing sky,” and then moves forward into the world, walking tall into the fresh morning. The song is an apt encapsulation of The Unseen In Between, a gorgeously empathetic record that attempts to recognize the worries of the world and offer some timely assurance. It is a revelatory and redemptive set, offering the balm of understanding at a time when that seems in very short supply.

Sometimes it can take years to find your calling. Not for Julie Byrne; whose power of lyrical expression and musical nous seems inborn. Often what comes naturally cannot be driven by speed and time. Julie’s second album, Not Even Happiness, has evolved at its own pace. It spans recollections of bustling roadside diners, the stars over the high desert, the aching weariness of change, the wildflowers of the California coast, and the irresolvable mysteries of love. Her new album vividly archives what would have otherwise been lost to the road, and in doing so, Byrne exhibits her extraordinarily innate musicality. Some of the songs on Not Even Happiness took years of fine tuning to reach their fruition. If you asked her why the follow up to 2014’s Rooms With Walls and Windows has taken so long, you’d be greeted with a bewildered expression melted into a smile - as though the strangest question had just been asked. “Writing comes from a natural process of change and growth. It took me up to this point to have the capacity to express my experience of the time in my life that these songs came from.”

Julie Byrne has counted Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans and Northampton, Massachusetts as her transient homes in recent years. For now, she’s settled in New York City, moonlighting as a seasonal urban park ranger in Central Park. Whether witnessing the Pacific Northwest for the first time (‘Melting Grid’), the morning sky in the mountains of Boulder (‘Natural Blue’), or a journey fragrant with rose water; reading Frank O’Hara aloud from the passengers seat during a drive through the Utah desert into the rainforest of Washington State (‘The Sea As It Glides’), Not Even Happiness is Julie’s beguilingly ode to the fringes of life.

“The title of the album comes from a letter I wrote to a friend after a trip to Riis Park’s ‘The People’s Beach’,,,it was the first warm afternoon of the year. I walked alongside the Atlantic as the Earth came alive for the sun. There was a palpable sense of emergence to everything. I felt it in myself too, and remember thinking I would trade that feeling for nothing…not even happiness.”

Julie taught herself guitar, picking it up when her father became ill and could no longer play. She readily admits she can’t read music and doesn’t even listen to it all that much - her own vinyl was the first in her possession. Back to her childhood home in western New York state to record the album with producer Eric Littmann (Phantom Posse), friend Jake Falby contributed strings at a cabin in Holderness, New Hampshire. “Without possessing the right words, I’d describe to Eric and Jake the feeling I wanted a song to evoke, or I would take a shot at singing what was in my head. Though over all, their contributions to the record are entirely their own vision and their own power. I trusted each of them and we chose each other; our songs came from that place.”
Not Even Happiness offers a bigger picture to its predecessor through a wider exploration of instruments and atmospherics, revealing an artist who has grown in confidence over time. This form of self-evolution permeates through the track titles, as the album opens with, ‘Follow My Voice’ and ends with, ‘I Live Now as a Singer’.” “Those two songs are the nearest to my heart, without hesitation. This is an album with a far stronger sense of self, and fidelity to self than the last,” she says.

Her last album was released in January 2014, on Chicago based DIY label Orindal after first existing as two separate cassette releases. Rooms With Walls and Windows went on to become a true modern-day word of mouth success story (it would have to be for an artist who shuns all forms of social media). By the end of the year, it was voted number 7 in Mojo Magazine’s Best Albums, with the Huffington Post calling it, “2014’s Great American Album.” A collection of hushed intimate front porch psych-folk songs, recalling the greats, but strongly emanating the essence of timeliness. Her journey to follow was captured in two summers through Europe, playing the Green Man Festival and End of the Road, as well as lesser trodden tour paths around Italy.

In the live arena she enchants, leaving rooms and festival crowds mesmerized by her voice and warm presence, where many find a real connection with Byrne’s intimate songs. This feeling is often shared: “The most magical thing about performing these songs is that afterwards, so many of the conversations I have escape all small talk,” tells Julie. “Shows don’t always have this spirit, but when they do, every person has contributed, even unknowingly, to creating a space of responsiveness to each other through vulnerability, through our unified experience and honesty about our sorrow and our emergence.”

Julie Byrne is taking Not Even Happiness on the road throughout 2017.

$16 adv / $18 door

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