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New Albums By Steve Gunn And Michael Chapman Showcase The Guitar's Complexity


This is FRESH AIR. Perhaps no instrument is more identified with rock and folk music than the guitar. Rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to two new albums by very different, yet connected guitarists. Steve Gunn is an instrumentalist turned singer-songwriter. His new album is "The Unseen In Between." Michael Chapman is a veteran British folk musician whose new album is called "True North." Steve Gunn produced it. Here's Ken's review.


STEVE GUNN: (Singing) Vacancy in a burned-out frat. You're an empty stare from a vagrant cat. You're a vagabond. Your bag is packed, and you move along. Mona came from the sea...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Steve Gunn is primarily a guitarist. He'd put out at least a half dozen records before he started singing on 2013's "Time Off" album. As a guitarist, Gunn has been influenced by the finger-picking styles of Sandy Bull and John Fahey. But he's not as eccentric or mercurial as either of those assiduous rebels. Gunn's music tends toward a more soothing sound, as can be heard on "New Moon," a dreamy, almost weightless song.


GUNN: (Singing) I see a glimmer across the wall, through the mirror, out past the streets, beyond the weather, to that place no one seems to know. Off-key dreams...

TUCKER: Another new song, "Stonehurst Cowboy," is written about Gunn's father, who had died shortly before Gunn wrote it. Featuring Gunn on acoustic guitar and Richard Garnier on bass, it's about revisiting his dad's old neighborhood in Philadelphia, then switches to his own point of view as he realizes the similarities in his own sensibility and his father's.


GUNN: (Singing) Dear house near 69th - old street looks the same. Trees are strong, faces are gone - background still the same. Shadow in the sea of a dream to me - Stonehurst lonely. Back then, friends, brothers and me all got sent away - came back feeling so undone without much to say. Sat for hours, stared at your flowers, found ways to hide the pain. Stole your car, drove real far - no one can explain. Fastest hands in the West - call his name. He knows best. Tonight, I'm past the world.

TUCKER: I would guess that Michael Chapman is roughly twice as old as Steve Gunn, who calls Chapman, one of my heroes. Gunn says he admires Chapman for being, quote, "in his 70s, still pushing along, still doing it." What Chapman does at age 78, to be exact, is subtle. It's his own version of folk music mixed with singer-songwriter confessionalism that takes inspiration from both British Romantic poetry of the 19th century and American hard-boiled fiction of the 20th.


MICHAEL CHAPMAN: (Singing) There's ghosts out in the corridors of this broken-down hotel. The place is full of strangers. Some don't wish me well. And I wake up with a bottle of something strong and cheap and far too many memories I'm trying not to keep. 'Cause we were kept apart by a cruel twist of fate - I never knew I wanted you until it was too late. 'Cause we were kept apart by a cruel twist of fate - I never knew I wanted you until it was too late - until it was too late.

TUCKER: The production on this Michael Chapman album "True North," overseen by Steve Gunn, sounds as though Chapman was playing guitar and singing in a dark, drafty, high-ceilinged chamber in a very old house - some dank guest room in Downton Abbey. His electric and acoustic guitar playing sends out spidery lines of melody that cling to the lyrics he croaks out.


CHAPMAN: (Singing) A country girl singing soft and low is tearing me apart. I'm wasting time in a smoky room - full bottle, empty heart. I never minded all the miles - seems like I was born to roam. But I just wish you'd walk right in and take this roamer home. I've got nothing more to give.

TUCKER: Listening to these two albums, it occurred to me that the British Michael Chapman sounds more American than the native Pennsylvanian Steve Gunn. What both share is a faith in the guitar as an instrument capable of suggesting all of the mystery, confusion and complex delight that life presents them with.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. He reviewed new albums by Steve Gunn and Michael Chapman. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Russian-style kleptocracy has infiltrated the U.S. My guest will be Franklin Foer, national correspondent for The Atlantic. We'll also discuss the latest news about the Mueller investigation and Paul Manafort. Foer's article about Manafort, "American Hustler," is nominated for a National Magazine Award. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


CHAPMAN: (Singing) Let the lights burn low till the break of day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.