Saturday, August 18, 2012

Unnecessary Music Review: Leo Kottke's "6- & 12-String Guitar" Album

Leo Kottke's 6- & 12-String Guitar instrumental album was originally released in 1969, to widespread critical acclaim. The album was Kottke's second one and would remain his most popular release. So why am I reviewing this album now, some 40-plus years later?

Because I've always wanted to do a music review, but didn't know how to do it. So I decided to give it a whirl with an album I'd never heard before. I hadn't even heard of the artist. I just picked it up off the CD shelf at random from my local library and decided to do a review of it. So here goes nothing...

The YouTube video below is an upload of the entire 6- & 12-String Guitar album, in case you'd like to listen to the songs while reading my review. If you don't want to, that's cool too. I've done my very best to describe the songs in my own words (since there are no words in the songs).

Track 1 ~ "The Driving Of The Year Nail" --  This song starts off well but gets a little repetitive toward the middle, and then again near the end. Not bad, but seems like it could have been better. An obligatory chord strum at the end of the song makes it just a little trite for my tastes.

Track 2 ~ "The Last Of The Arkansas Greyhounds" -- This one starts off really stripped down, like Kottke's practicing his chords, but then he really gets going, and it's fairly awesome. There's a nice peaceful interlude smack-dab in the middle of the song that, frankly, makes you want to be in front of a campfire singing "Kumbaya." The latter half of the song takes a bit darker turn, a la early Metallica (albeit acoustic), before Kottke returns to the wonky-sounding "chord practicing" to conclude the song.

Track 3 ~ "Ojo" -- The song starts off calm and plaintive; you can easily imagine yourself riding down a country road on the bed of a pickup truck on your way to anywhere. The song takes on a slightly darker tone toward the latter half, but promptly turns cheerful again at the end -- and you're back on that pickup truck.

Track 4 ~ "Crow River Waltz" -- Well, it's called a waltz, and it certainly feels like one. Kottke's guitar here sounds almost clavichord-like -- imagine yourself in full Victorian attire waltzing in the grand salon of a stately country home north of London. The tune would easily be at home on the soundtrack of a BBC production of a Jane Austen novel, which is a testament to both its modern, accessible sound and its classic widespread appeal.

Track 5 ~ "The Sailor's Grave On The Prairie" -- This one definitely has a sea shanty feel to it. Kottke's numerous slides throughout the song give it a nostalgic feel. I would listen to this one while going through my grandmother's hope chest, for example -- looking at pictures of her and my grandfather when they were much younger.

Track 6 ~ "Vaseline Machine Gun" -- This song starts with a subtle, slightly varied rendition of "Taps," then transitions into a rollicking, foot-tapping hoedown-like number. Admittedly, this is an odd mix of musical sounds and feelings. Toward the middle, Kottke gets downright rock-and-roll-ish, and I have to say, it's pretty awesome! This is my favorite track off the album so far. I've been taken on a roller coaster of sounds and emotions, and I'm really confused, but I know that I like it. A lot. (Though it could've done without the end strum.)

Track 7 ~ "Jack Fig" -- This one's similar sonically to the first and third tracks on the album; it's somewhat repetitive and none too exciting, but no less technically proficient than any of the other songs. The song picks up nicely towards the end, but still doesn't manage to break out of that "been there, done that" sound or feel.

Track 8 ~ "Watermelon" -- This is another one of those back-of-the-pickup-on-a-country-road songs, but that's not a bad thing. This one sounds and feels like summertime. It has a nice toe-tapping rhythm that you could easily get lost in (and I did). It may not vary a lot throughout, but the sound was so pleasant that I didn't want the track (or the imagined country road) to end. My second favorite song so far.

Track 9 ~ "Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring" -- Being quite familiar with this song, I came into it with certain expectations of how it "ought" to sound. I was not disappointed. Kottke retains the integrity of the original tune while giving it some layering and flourishes of his own. Very nicely done!

Track 10 ~ "The Fisherman" -- This one definitely fits its title. It would be a very appropriate song to play in the background of  a movie or TV show in which a father and son walk to the pond to go fishing (think Andy and Opie Taylor, minus the whistling). The song has a classic bluegrass feel to it. It would make a great theme song for one of those North Carolina-based PBS programs they show on Saturday mornings. If you've watched much PBS, you'll know the ones I'm talking about.

Track 11 ~ "The Tennessee Toad" -- This track starts off very bluesy, real earthy-sounding. Kottke's frequent bends add to that sound without being overdone or distracting. This song would be very much at home in a Coen Brothers film (look 'em up if you don't know who I'm talking about), or maybe an episode of The Dukes Of Hazzard  (in a scene involving Uncle Jesse).

Track 12 ~ "Busted Bicycle" -- The song starts off energetically and stays that way. It has a very rock-and-roll or outlaw country sound to it. If you don't tap your foot to this one, you may not have a pulse. Kottke takes some nice twists and turns throughout here, so the song never gets boring. My third favorite song on the album.

Track 13 ~ "The Brain Of The Purple Mountain" -- This one starts off a little dissonant (on purpose), and actually I wish it didn't. It's way too slow of a song to follow the previous one, and it's frankly one of the biggest disappointments on the whole album. This song just seems like it doesn't belong here at all.

Track 14 ~ "Coolidge Rising" -- Now we're talking! Here, Kottke returns to the rollicking rhythm with touches of rock-and-roll at which he truly excels. Not a ton of variation from start to finish in this song, but it sounds so good that it doesn't even matter all that much. This track is a good, upbeat way to end the album, though I wouldn't actually have minded a nice end strum here. The abrupt ending seems just that: abrupt.

Postscript:  If you enjoyed reading this music review, please "Like" it on Facebook, or comment here, so I'll know if I did a halfway decent job and should try to do more of these, or let me know if I stunk it up big-time and should quit while I'm (not) ahead. Thanks! ~ JPH

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