On a sunny August afternoon in 2014, guitarists Steve Gunn and William Tyler shared the main stage on an island in the French Broad River in Marshall, North Carolina. It was Gunn's set at Harvest Records' Transfigurations II festival, and he was easing through a set of laid-back jams, often leading from an acoustic guitar.
About halfway through, Tyler joined in for "Lurker," a looping, slow-burning blues. Tyler's Telecaster was set to a watery burble, flashing glowing leads in and around Gunn's singing. They were lovely little choruses of sound, their diffusion contrasting with the laser-like focus of Gunn's own fretwork. It was one of many highlights of an exceptional festival, a rare collaboration between two of the more intriguing guitarists of the moment.
As that performance suggests, Gunn and Tyler have very different approaches to the guitar. Both are rooted in a fuzzy miasma that links John Fahey with Southern rock, krautrock with Memphis soul, and Ali Farka Touré's desert blues with La Monte Young's drones. From that starting point, they derive complementary but contrasting musical visions, which will be on display at a pair of concerts around the Triangle this week: Gunn brings his band to Raleigh's Kings on Tuesday, and Tyler takes the stage in Durham at Duke Gardens Wednesday.
Gunn's playing has always been sharp and driven, with a strong sense of forward momentum. Within his early drone group GHQ, he pushed its exploded mountain music forward. He perfected that sense of directness with drummer John Truscinski in the Gunn-Truscinski Duo, whose songs would often transform from experimental ragas into intricate rockers, drawing equally on Jack Rose and the Sun City Girls. Their rare performances in the Triangle have verged on the transcendent.
So it's come as a surprise to see Gunn attempt to make his name as a songwriter over the past few years. His last three albums have all been song-based, gradually moving in a more conventional rock direction, his baritone voice at the center of things. His newest, June's Eyes on the Lines, is accomplished and a little confounding. His guitar sounds as good as ever, with Allman Brothers twang added to his signature Television-esque tumbles. The production is crisp and clean, allowing Gunn to unleash a wide range of guitar timbres.
But the songwriting itself remains uneven. Gunn's voice is thin, with a fairly narrow range, so many of the melodies tend to hover around one or two notes. He often gets stuck in mid-tempo rock songs that start to sound the same, and his lyrics are alternately mystical, oblique, and banal. Sometimes, as on "Conditions Wild" or "Ancient Jules," everything works perfectly, with evocative imagery and good-enough vocal melodies complementing spacious guitar solos and infectious grooves. Elsewhere, Gunn delivers lines like, "There's a constant motion/makes you feel like the ocean."
That his vocals do so little begs the question of why have them at all? In a 2013 interview, Gunn said that he had long been interested in making singer-songwriter moves, not just being an instrumental picker. He said he wanted to avoid getting forced into a specific subset of music, but his songs with vocals seem to fall back into an even narrower range of genres. Gunn is one of the best guitarists around these days, and he clearly knows how to construct instrumentals that work. Do the verses and choruses provide some kind of buttressing for his instrumental material? Or is it something deeper about rock music that places a premium on the voice over the instrumental? Gunn doesn't seem to have found the answer to these questions.
William Tyler, on the other hand, is fundamentally an instrumentalist and an architect. Most of his songs start out with a simple core, to which he adds layer upon layer of instrumental counterpoint and color until it all explodes with joy. The exact path to that explosion has changed over time. On his 2010 LP, Behold the Spirit, written after years of playing with Lambchop and the Silver Jews, his process of accretion is subtle. He'll introduce barely audible synth chords and a few playful trombone licks to a Fahey-esque fingerpicking tune or let extra layers of guitar gradually engulf an old-timey melody. More often than not, though, he lets the tunes sing for themselves, unadorned. Impossible Truth, from 2013, expanded on this approach, adding pedal steel, walking bass, and the occasional trombone chorus to his electric guitar.
Things have gotten more complicated recently, and more exciting. On Modern Country—released the same day as Gunn's Eyes on the Lines—Tyler erects towering instrumental compositions where the constant process of accumulation becomes the focal point itself. He's making the argument that you can use repetition, evolution, and complexity to replace vocals as an organizing principal. "Highway Anxiety," for instance, maintains a single, longing melody for nine riveting minutes. At first, it's just reverb-drenched electric guitar accompanied by a soaring pedal steel and a basic bass line, shortly joined by a piano plucking a few chords and bits of melody. A slippery drum line (played by Wilco's Glenn Kotche) enters, and more guitars spin wonderful countermelodies before everything gradually fades back to silence.
"The Great Unwind" does something similar with piles of guitar distortion, while "Gone Clear" is an expansive piece of baroque folk, complete with layers of organ, twelve-string guitar, chimes, and bells. And "I'm Going to Live Forever (If it Kills Me)" sounds almost like an impression of older Steve Gunn records: a forward-tumbling melody undergirded by motoric drumming. A few extra-sweet harmonic turns remind us that it's actually Tyler at the helm. Before we know it, he's off to build his next edifice.
It's a shame the two don't play together more often. They'd balance out each other well, with Gunn's directness adding a through line to Tyler's loops and Tyler's gauzy layers providing an alternate structure for Gunn's songs. Together, the two players might stand to craft megaliths even more magnificent than the sum of their parts.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Six-String Symphonies"