Annabel Mehran's black-and-white cover photo for Steve Gunn's The Unseen In Between is a portrait of the guitarist and songwriter seemingly on the move. It evokes those found on early- to mid-'60s recordings by Bob Dylan, Koerner, Ray & Glover, Jackson C. Frank, Bert Jansch, and others. Gunn has shifted his focus considerably. Rather than simply showcase his dazzling guitar playing, he delivers carefully crafted, uncharacteristically tight and well-written songs with guitars, keyboards, strings, reeds -- and percussion -- translating them without artifice or instrumental disguise. Gunn's also a more confident, capable singer than he was on 2016's Eyes on the Lines and it shows. He places his voice at the center of producer/guitarist James Elkington's beautifully layered, multi-textured mix. Gunn enlisted Tony Garnier, Dylan's bassist of 30 years as his musical director, along with Elkington (who also contributes guitars, harmonica, and keyboards), drummer T.J Mainani, keyboardist Daniel Schlett, string players Macie Stewart and Lia Kohl, and clarinetist Jacob Daneman. Opener "New Moon" commences with an acoustic guitar and bassline delivering a syncopated psych-folk vamp before a heavily reverbed electric guitar paints over them both. His delivery walks the line between folk, blues, and psychedelia as the tune unfolds its suggestive, fleeting landscapes and emotional states. "Vagabond," inspired by Agnes Varda's tragic 1985 film of the same name, features Meg Baird on backing vocals; its winding psychedelic country rock recalls the feel present on Jansch's early-'70s Los Angeles period albums L.A. Turnaround and Santa Barbara Honeymoon. It also clues us in to a particular strength in Gunn's writing process: His songs offer sometimes complex yet relatable narratives that seem to be overheard stories from the lives of others, not confessional directives. Only "Stonehurst Cowboy," the shortest, sparsest tune on the set, does that with its searing, poignant, folk elegy for his late father. A lone fingerpicked steel string guitar and Garnier's upright bass are his only accompanists. "Luciano" is a pillowy, lilting nearly Baroque folk narrative about the relationship between a bodega owner and his cat. "New Familiar" utilizes a hypnotic drone and repetitive single-string guitar lines done raga style to introduce a sprawling, labyrinthine rock number, while "Lightning Field" uses the inspiration of artist Walter De Maria's installation of 400 stainless steel poles to evoke a stinging psych tune that recalls the Dream Syndicate and the Meat Puppets circa Up on the Sun with a killer lead break. "Morning Has Mended" offers multi-tracked vocals, shimmering cymbals, and an open-tuned 12-string to deliver a gauzy, seductive dream song. On The Unseen In Between, Gunn's guitar is the hub on which his songs turn, but it's not their centerpiece. For guitar fans, there's an abundance of fine playing here, but the songwriter's aesthetic shift delivers listeners his most consistent album to date.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek