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Music

Steve Gunn brings a wandering, cosmic spirit to guitar-based rock

Steve Gunn
Steve Gunn will play the Echo on Friday night.
(Constance Mensh)

In this always-on, phone-obsessed era, Steve Gunn’s “Eyes On the Lines” is a rarity. It’s a plugged-in guitar-focused rock record about unplugging and tuning out. It sounds relaxed.

Released earlier this year via respected New York indie Matador, it’s an album about getting lost in the little details — taking the time to enjoy the music of a busker, for instance — and of learning how to roll with life’s annoyances. Miss a flight? In a Gunn song, that’s simply an excuse to enjoy a wasted afternoon and grab a hotel room.

At once meticulously crafted yet casual, arrangements on the nine-song album are loose-fitting. Guitar solos emerge not to lead but to detour. The whole collection feels improvised — a rock ’n’ roll record made like a jazz one.

“I wanted to embrace the concept of getting lost and trusting the unknown,” Gunn said. “I think that’s important to really embrace, especially in these times when that sensibility is really getting lost. It’s important to embrace that more improvised part of life. It’s the best way to discover things. I think it’s really getting diminished by technology.”

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Gunn, who plays the Echo on Friday night, brings a sense of hippie mysticism to his songs — think the expansiveness of the Grateful Dead, for instance, as there’s a cosmic, anything-goes quality to his work. But there’s also enough quirks and studio effects to lend the songs an era-less feel, even if the tone is all feet-on-the-dashboard laziness.

“Nature Driver,” a love letter to freeloaders everywhere, builds in slow-motion, starting as a stroll and then descending to a crawl as finger-picked guitar notes write in cursive around the melody. A spacey streak permeates “Ancient Jules,” as upper- and lower-register guitars sound as if they’re having a conversation.

“Eyes On the Lines” is his first for Matador, but Gunn has been releasing records for the better part of the last decade. A student of the guitar, Gunn notes he studied various styles throughout his career, from flamenco music to Indian classical. Though the untrained ear would never guess it, Gunn said his goal with his recent works is to simplify.

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“I was over-thinking the guitar,” he said. “Simplicity can go a long way. I had lost sight of that in my studies. Singing helped me come back full circle and to try and just let things ring out a little longer and not need to be so compact with what I was doing.”

The tempo of the new album picks up a bit on “Park Bench Smile,” but here, Gunn and his collaborators sound like a jazz combo, with lightly brushed cymbal rhythms and sparkly guitar notes and brief, panicked flashes of synths. Gunn said he had out-of-this world jazz artist Sun Ra on his mind when he wrote the tune. Well, Sun Ra, and street musicians.

“Over the years, I’ve always stopped to take a look at parks and subways, and there’s some incredible street musicians here,” said the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist. “There were, too, in Philadelphia, where I grew up. I feel the song is just kind of about my curiosity. It’s my appreciation of them and their presence. I think a lot of people just don’t acknowledge anyone on the fringes of society, particularly people who perform. I’m just really curious to hear their stories.”

Yet Gunn’s lyrics are never direct. Occasional mentions of real-world places and things make their appearance, but “Eyes On the Lines” has a wanderer’s spirit. “He likes to wonder and lose direction,” Gunn sings on “Night Wander,” a polite, sonic strut into the twilight about the joys of walking for hours.

The song, Gunn said, is laced with nostalgia for his childhood. “We had this exploratory sensibility. Me and my friends would walk around and go out late at night. We weren’t bad, but there was a sense that we were on an adventure if we walked around late at night.”

Ultimately, it’s ambiguity he’s going for.

“I don’t like to be overly confessional with songs,” he said. “I try to use words that create certain imagery instead of just being, ‘I love this woman who works at the coffee shop and blah blah blah.’ Maybe I’ll write that song someday, but mystery to me is important.” 

Todd.Martens@latimes.com

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Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens

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