As you may have noticed before, Americans tend to be a bit obsessed with their country. Not in a political or patriotic sense, necessarily, but rather a mythological one: our culture and our history, truncated as they are, loom outsize in our minds, as if the whole human story from creation to perdition might reside somewhere within them. To a foreigner, this must be mystifying, and indeed the lack of American Nobel Prizes in the last several decades is generally attributed to this insularity, how American writers name-check others in the same small canon in a game that must seem horribly stultifying to those eminent Swedes.
And certainly in music, as in all art forms, it can be. Bluegrass, arguably America’s earliest indigenous form of popular music, shows this better than most. Since 2000, when O Brother Where Art Thou?’s soundtrack topped the Billboard 200 and made folk staple “Man of Constant Sorrow” a country hit, this twangy, old-timey music has made repeated stabs at the popular consciousness, and even prevailed: with Mumford & Sons it for a time became arena arena rock, and the banjo made its, likely first, impact on rock radio. But all of these revivals came with a strict dose of fundamentalism, that even if we were going to have pop song choruses and four-on-the-floor beats we would never venture from the aesthetics of those imagined backwoods pickers, from talk of farm work in a fictional rural idyll, demanding that the music ought to be simple, ought not to push boundaries. That it ought, essentially, to remain a novelty, a historical curio, not a thing that might live and swell and expand.
Steve Gunn, it seems, never got the message. While the guitarist has meddled in numerous styles on his various collaborations and solo records, his latest, Seasonal Hire, finds him, with help from the Black Twig Pickers, taking bluegrass head-on. Gunn’s style is much discussed but remains a technical mystery, a slippery, circular kind of improvisation that never commandeers a recording nor cedes the floor, modulating rhythms with a sudden and striking ease that bespeaks flowing water and rippling wind and the in-out-in-out breath of a man startlingly lost in his work. There is little about it that could be called ‘iconic’, in the way one might identify Fripp or Haino or O’Rourke, or indeed the blues legends like Son House that Gunn channels. But such is its strength, the components eminently recognizable and the end result impossibly the opposite.
Good as Seasonal Hire is, featuring as it does the most boundary-pushing jug playing this side of the 13th Floor Elevators, the record eclipses itself on its sixteen-plus-minute title track, a musical triumph in a total sense. Built on a gleeful syncopation, Gunn’s guitar pushes the band, subdividing the off-beats and then hitting their off-beats, all while a hum of bowed cymbal and shrieking fiddle build in the corners of the room, banjo following the guitar’s lead as both leap in and out of time, trading melodic ideas and rhythmic patterns as they lock into the same musical repartee. Then a bell clicks, and you realize this song has been eight-and-a-half minutes on the same chord with no great desire to change that, Gunn circling around the root note, finding harmonies, dissonances, endless shapes and patterns that might inspire some idea in his collaborators, who chime in with their own, and each slips along the other and creates sparks, lights fires. By the time a fiddle hits on an Appalachian melody in the song’s fourteenth minute, it’s already too later; this song has nothing to do but ascend.
Gunn’s unlikely ally against the staidness of American folk music could not in methodology be more different. Chris Thile, mandolin prodigy and MacArthur Genius, is in every sense a formalist, a Whiplash-worthy talent whose records extol the values of professionalism, practice and discipline. He has collaborated with Yo Yo Ma and toured in Steve Martin’s old-timey backing band, known as the best of the best in his field. And yet his newest, Punch Brother’s Phosphorescent Blues, is 2015’s most forward-thinking ‘Americana’ record precisely because it turns those varied qualities inside-out, merging a knack for songcraft with rigorous performances from the best musicians in the form. Watching Punch Brothers live is a must; what can appear abstract on record takes on flesh and bleeds onstage, the band forming blocks that slide in rhythm around one another, banjo and fiddle hitting their fast arpeggios while Thile keeps quarter-time on muted mandolin strings. On Blues the players seem to be operating in different time signatures, and as on the loping “Julep” these compositional dissonances buoy the listener rapidly between them, happening right under your nose but always too slickly to cause problems.
The strength in both musicians’ approach remains how they use these simple, irreducibly American elements to introduce a wider audience to music’s spellbinding fringe. Not for nothing does Blues, nominally Punch Brothers’s ‘pop’ album, open with a ten-minute mélange of instrumental pyrotechnics, “Moonshiner,” and the Beach Boys. The band even takes on pieces by Debussy and Scriabin between straight-up pop songs. Neither expresses fealty to ideas or motifs that might drag on their music and so both maintain remarkably individual musical identities that feel beholden to little, least so tradition. By dressing their free spirits in the skin of the normal the resultant music is welcoming even as it thrills and exults in possibility. Even better, its language is so common that we might all eavesdrop, and, even for just a moment, or a song, or an LP, understand.
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