As a guitarist, Steve Gunn is remarkably inventive and precise, striking a compelling balance between traditional American folk music and hypnotic avant-garde repetition. Channeling both John Fahey and Philip Glass, his riffs purl back on themselves to form odd, impossible shapes. As a singer, however, Gunn sounds rough and breathy and unpracticed, his deep voice conveying a sharp sense of worry and perhaps even desperation. He sings like a man concerned that his guitar alone might not get his point across.
This contrast between precision and estimation illuminates Way Out Weather, the follow-up to Gunn’s 2013 breakthrough Time Off. That largely acoustic record made a virtue of rambling, but Gunn has expanded his band from a trio into an octet. The result forays into wildly diverse territory, as though folk and blues, jazz and raga, psychedelia and heavy rock were simply points on a map. It’s fitting for a collection of nervous-sounding songs about transience and ecology — about watching the world decay from a tour-van window.
The album opens with the ruminative opening title track and “Wildwood,” but quickly gathers speed. A friendly acoustic strum introduces “Drifter,” but it stumbles into a breakneck train rhythm “Milly’s Garden” opens with a descending guitar riff like an M.C. Escher staircase, moving in one direction but somehow ending up back where it started. On the chorus, guitar notes flare away from the vocals like sparks. The music morphs constantly, never letting you get comfortable or settle in. Gunn spits his lyrics, angry and accusing: “Your faith is savaged, and your mind is damaged/ You’re more than halfway there.” He doesn’t specify where “there” might be, and even though that vague destination doesn’t sound exciting, the journey itself is more than worthwhile.