Graded on a Curve:
Gunn-Truscinski Duo,
Soundkeeper

Steve Gunn is best known for his string of records in singer-songwriter mode, especially two for the Matador label, but the man has been involved with numerous other projects spanning back to the mid-’00s, including the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, which features drummer John Truscinski on the right side of the hyphen. Soundkeeper is their fourth full-length in twosome configuration, a double set delivering more by design as their sound also gets broadened in unexpected ways; psychedelia is still in abundance, but with impressive improvisational fortitude. It’s out October 9 on 2LP and CD through Three Lobed Recordings.

The intro above perhaps short-shrifts John Truscinski a bit. Along with contributing to three of Gunn’s “solo” albums, he’s played on records by Magik Markers and Dredd Foole, and has been a member of Desert Heat with Gunn and Cian Nugent, and X.O.4 alongside Jake Meginsky and Bill Nace. A notable recent project is Sound for Andy Warhol’s KISS, which was recorded by Truscinski, Nace, Gunn, and Kim Gordon and released last year by the Andy Warhol Museum. Nace (who’s half of Body/Head with Gordon), also plays on Bridle Path, Truscinski’s own solo record, released earlier this year.

Bay Head, the last record by Gunn-Truscinski Duo, issued by Three Lobed in November of 2017, was a truly superb dose of psych action, modern but timeless, with a cumulative heft that felt conjured by more than four hands. As a double album, Soundkeeper hangs in the same weight class while displaying impressive stamina, with none of the tracks (ten of them cut in studio, two captured live) serving as padding (the set runs a relatively trim 71 minutes).

The striking thing about Soundkeeper’s contents is how so much of it reaches outside of psych’s parameters while maintaining expansive cohesiveness. And right off the bat, as the succinct opener “Into” is loaded with enough string shimmer to make a guitar-pop act envious, with Truscinski helming a synth for the track (his use of said instrument initiated on Bay Head), though the intent is to bring depth to the piece rather than deliver easily recognizable tones.

It’s in the lengthier abstraction of “Gam” that matters steer into the neighborhood of free jazz, or more specifically, of a duo lineup of Blue Humans consisting of Rudolph Grey and Beaver Harris, if that outfit had been spawned in ’60s San Francisco rather than ’80s NYC. From there, the initial moments of “Distance” establish a sort of post-kosmische drift halfway between tense and tranquil, as Gunn dishes tendrils of beauty alternating with a sustained pulse; Truscinski’s cymbals and tom accent subtly but effectively.

“Valley Spiral” swings the pendulum toward the rock side of the ticker, but with an incessant throb that helps to steer the sound away from the orthodox. I like that. But next, “Pyramid Merchandise,” the first of the live cuts, takes the full plunge into psych-rock heaviness, and I like that, too. Also, there’s a nimbleness to their playing that can be attributed to the stripped-down lineup, but also to their combined prowess and good taste.

In brief, the pair don’t slog forth, and they don’t suffer from rehashing ideas. “Northwest” introduces bluesy slide guitar licks harkening back to Son House as Truscinski again sets the drums aside and contributes what Jesse Jarnow, in the set’s PR essay, describes as “lead drone.” Elsewhere in the piece, Jarnow draws a comparison to Yo La Tengo, and I can really hear that, though I’m not sure I would’ve made the connection on my own. So, subtlety, again.

“Ocean City” resonates like 21st century Yo La Tengo (think “Stupid Things”) with Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross” on their mind, and that’s just splendid. The title track, which is the other live selection and also the longest entry at 16 minutes, begins a bit like the meditative side of late-period Yo La, but just a bit, and it’s not long before the duo gets back to the Bay Area in the ’60s, stylistically.

It’s worth noting that Soundkeeper avoids the duff moves that plagued San Fran as the ’70s encroached, as its studio cuts were recorded in Easthampton, MA at Sonelab and in Hoboken, NJ at Echo Canyon. Also, the live tracks derive from separate shows at Union Pool in Brooklyn, these circumstances reinforcing the Gunn-Truscinski Duo as a prime example of the contempo psych underground, Northeast, USA division.

Sharp and short, “Closeness” is the first of two more synth infused pieces, as the second, “Curtain,” spreads out just a little and ropes in another helping of Gunn’s slide work, this time more atmospheric. With “Windows,” the drums return, and with them comes an aura reminding me just a pinch of Aussie singer-songwriter Michael Beach, but with a crucial distinction.

As a listener with a persevering preference for instrumental (that is, non-vocal) music, I can say that Soundkeeper hits my sweet spot right in the bullseye. But upon consideration, I suspect folks with a predilection for mouths singing lyrics will still find much to like here, as the duo prefer engaging progressions over self-indulgence.

Gunn and Truscinski’s high-flying finale “For Eddie Hazel” drives this home, emphasizing how Soundkeeper is the kind of record to unite fans of Funkadelic, Peter Green, Grateful Dead, Popol Vuh, Sonic Youth, and Chris Forsyth. I think that sums things up rather nicely…

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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