Monday, December 7, 2009

December 7: Leo Kottle & Mike Gordon, "Clone"

Artist: Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon
Album: Clone
Year: 2002
Label: Private Music

The age old saying says that every could has a silver lining, though in the world of music, it seems to be less true than in other aspects of life. For instance, a majority of the time, when a band breaks up, the solo projects that follow are usually little more then a member of the band attempting to recapture the magic of the group for which they are known. Creating a second rate version of the original sound, they are rarely as successful in any way, and they rarely last more then a single record. However, there are a handful of cases where an artist is either so talented or breaks away so significantly form the original sound, that they are able to redefine themselves artistically, and such ventures have yielded some of the finest records ever made. When "jam band" torch-bearers Phish took their first extended break in 2000, each of the four band members took the time off to explore their own unique musical tastes, and the unique personality of each band member became far more clear. Without question, the finest and most musically interesting of all of these ventures was the pairing of bassist Mike Gordon with guitar legend Leo Kottke. While both performers had already made their name as icons of their instrument, the sound and mood that the two create as a group is one of the most uniquely quirky, yet absolutely fantastic sounds ever recorded. Releasing a pair of records during Gordon's breaks from Phish, it is the duo's first collaboration, 2002's Clone that stands as their finest achievement, as well as one of the most extraordinary albums ever recorded.

The relationship between the two musicians actually began more then a decade earlier, when Gordon sent Kottke a cassette tape containing a re-arrangement he had done of Kottke's classic, "The Driving of the Year Nail." The two artists are clearly cut from the same cloth, as both take classic, yet complex musical arrangements and place their own unique, and quirky spin on them. From eccentric musical arrangements to some of the stranger lyrics that one will find anywhere, the resulting product of their collaboration is without question one of the most interesting partnerships in music history. Pulling from all of their shared influences, sounds of bluegrass, folk, jazz, blues, and countless other genres shine through on Clone, giving the album a cohesive, yet wonderfully diverse sound. With a dozen original songs, as well as a fantastic cover of the Roy Buchanan classic, "I Am A Lonesome Fugitive," and Bob Fuller's, "From Pizza Towers To Defeat," it was clear with the release of Clone that there was far more to be done with the two musicians, and the album would receive a follow-up with 2005's Sixty-Six Steps. While the second record is a solid effort, it is clear that their debut together is far more organic, and this proves to be one of the most important aspects of their shared music. Keeping the studio effects to a minimum, the raw nature of Clone is one of the most endearing attributes, as each song sounds as if it could be being played in the room with the listener, and this intimate feeling is the key to the albums' genius.

Leo Kottke is without question one of the greatest guitar players in music history, making his name as one of the finest instrumentalists throughout the 1970's. Playing both six and twelve string guitars on the album, Kottke is in prime form, and the pairing with Gordon gives Kottke's music a fresh sound, and the pairing often sounds like the legendary collaboration between Jorma Kaoukonen and Jack Cassidy (of Hot Tuna) which was equally fresh in sound and organic in mood. Kottke's unique approach to guitar, creating brilliant polyrhythmic progressions with only his guitar, makes his playing instantly recognizable, and this is the most important aspect to Clone, as this is where the two artists are completely in sync. The way in which Kottke interlaces his brilliant guitar phrasings with Gordon's equally impressive bass is pure musical bliss, and the same can be said of the vocals that the two also share. Though he once described his own voice as, "geese farts on a muggy day," Kottke's voice throughout Clone is absolutely perfect. Taking the lead on many songs, most notably on "From Pizza Towers To Defeat," both his lead work, as well as his perfect harmonies with Gordon give the album a gentle, yet simultaneously playful feel. It is also the vocal nuances that Kottke adds that gives Clone such a phenomenal sound, as these small touches give the songs amazing amounts of character, and it is through these instances that one can sense just how much both musicians are enjoying the collaboration.

While he plays and sings just as well on Clone, it is also clear that Mike Gordon understands that he is playing alongside and absolute legend of music. Gordon's folk-based playing on the album is not all that out of character, as during his time with Phish, he often took vocal duties on the more bluegrass and folk-based songs in the bands' repertoire. With his acoustic bass in hand, Gordon creates some of his most stunning musical progressions to date, and the way in which he and Kottke intertwine their playing is truly stunning to experience. Similarly, Gordon's voice has rarely sounded better then it does on Clone, and it is clear that his voice was an underused talent within the confines of Phish. Whether taking a melodic lead or finding a stunning harmony with Kottke, the vocals throughout the record are truly some of the most beautiful ever captured on record. In his time with Phish, Gordon also made a name for himself as one of the oddest lyricists ever, and this continues with some truly genius word-craft on Clone. Throwing absolutely brilliant lines like, "...he's not just a mirage, a reflection, or an elf...he makes it so I can live vicariously through clone is hard of hearing, so he taught me how to sign...and in silence I could see your eyes and know that you were mine..." on the title track, the album features some of Gordon's finest lyrics to date. These eccentric lyrics are another point of fusion for Gordon and Kottke, as both have an amazing talent for delivering these seemingly odd lyrics with amazing power and character.

Proving that there is a great deal of musical ground that one can cover within the confines of acoustic music, the collaboration between guitar legend Leo Kottke and Phish bassist Mike Gordon stands today as one of the finest pairings in music history. Sharing both extraordinary musical talent as well as a similar love for non-traditional, sometimes strange musical and vocal arrangements, their debut record, Clone, proves that they are truly two kindred spirits. From the eerie, almost psychedelic "Clay" to the strange genius of "The Collins Missile" to absolutely gorgeous cover of "I Am A Lonesome Fugitive," the duo prove that there is nothing they can't do, and everything that they do, they do with phenomenal results. With each artist taking a fair share of the lead vocal duties, each song as its own personality, and the harmonies that the two present are easily some of the finest shared vocals in history. The success found on Clone comes down to the fact that, on nearly every level, Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke have a shared musical vision, and with neither artist having anything to "prove," the freedom to explore and experiment yields absolutely extraordinary results. While one cannot overlook their work outside of this album, the debut record from the combination of Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke, 2002's Clone, is without question one of the most exceptional musical recordings in history, and it is beyond an essential album for any and every music fan.

Standout tracks: "Car Carrier Blues," "Clone," and "I Am A Lonesome Fugitive."

No comments: