Steve Gunn — Nakama (Matador)

Steve Gunn has always had one foot in indie rock and the other in an expansive improvisational scene. His songwriter albums alternate with freewheeling jams, most notably in his Gunn-Truscinski Duo, but are not confined to that. He’s playing a New York City residency at Union Pool right now with Bill Nace, among others. While Gunn is not as actively derisive of his songster side as, say, Ryley Walker, he’s clearly got other stuff on his mind. So when Gunn decided to revisit Other You, it made sense that he brought in some guests from the far side of the commercial/experimental spectrum to reimagine his songs. Nakama presents five tracks from that last album, reshaped by artists that Gunn admires. The process loosens the songs up considerably.

To start, he calls in Mdou Moctar’s backing band (the American bassist Mikey Coltun and the other guitarist Ahmoudou Madassane) for “Protection.” The song already had a bit of blues-y swagger to it, with sharper-edged guitar rhythms also heard on the ultra-smooth Other You, but here the heat has an otherworldly desert sheen. Its caravan-traveling rhythm sways from side to side, digging in to to the upbeats in a way that is both kinetic and also hypnotically still. There’s some crowd noise in the background, the knot of people that regularly forms when Mdou and his compatriots plug in from Agadez, and a few mournful afro-blues licks arcing off the vamp. But mostly it’s a cut that reminds you how much African guitar music Gunn has absorbed (listen to “Tommy’s Congo” from Way Out Weather for proof), and how well it fits with what he does. 

Gunn also brings in Circuit Des Yeux’s Haley Fohr to reconfigure “Ever Feel That Way,” and she sets the song’s drifting melancholy amid pensive minor-key piano chords. She strips back the ambient whoosh that surrounds the original, slows down the pace and presents the song in startling, unadorned clarity. Her version removes some of the sticky, over-prettiness that I found so distracting in Other You. The melody is better, purer and more focused without the frills. There is also an electronic remake of “Reflection” from David Moore’s ambient ensemble Bing and Ruth, which traps Gunn’s fragile vocals in a shivering palace of synthetic tones. It’s enjoyable in its way, but the two sensibilities never quite meld together. 

The best part comes when Gunn joins forces with Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society in remakes of “Good Wind” and “On the Way.” The former is a matter of subtle differences: the gentle pitch and roll under Gunn’s voice, the intermittent liquid runs of bass between widely spaced phrases. Abrams and his crew open up the jazz-leaning, reiterative possibilities under Gunn’s song, but they don’t change it fundamentally. “On the Way” is even stronger, a glowing drone and a pattern of hand drums enveloping the melody. It makes the music seem more spiritual, more resonant, more deep and full of mysteries. It was striking enough that I had to go back to Other You to hear again an album that had left me cold. This new version of “On the Way” didn’t change that chill, but it gave me an idea of how strong the songs might have sounded in another setting.

Jennifer Kelly