Sunday, March 4, 2012

March 4: Leo Kottke, "Eight Miles High"

Artist: Leo Kottke
Song: "Eight Miles High"
Album: Mudlark
Year: 1971

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Throughout the course of music history, there are a handful of figures who, for a wide range of reasons, completely altered the way that a number of genres and instruments were approached.  Whether it was their particular tone, or the presence that they had on records, their sounds cannot be mistaken for that of any other, and such performers have countless songs in their catalog that have achieved a level nothing short of "timeless."  Among such legends, there stands a man whose life is in many was as intriguing as the music he creates; as Leo Kottke is truly a "one of a kind" performer.  Without question one of the most versatile and imaginative guitarists in history, Kottke is perhaps the most unexpected musician in history, as he lost an overwhelming majority of his sense of hearing following a pair of incidents early on in his life.  However, he quickly made a name for himself in the folk scene of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his 1969 debut album, Six And Twelve String Guitar, remain one of the most dazzling and outright beautiful records ever released.  More than four decades later, Kottke continues to create and innovate all across the music spectrum, and one would be hard pressed to single out just one of his songs as his finest in any sense of the word.  However, to fully appreciate both his guitar skills, as well as his unique voice, one need look no further than Leo Kottke's superb 1971 rendition of the song, "Eight Miles High."

Within only a few moments of the song beginning, it is clear that Leo Kottke possesses a control and technical ability that is far beyond that of almost any other guitarist in history.  The layering of the guitars is nothing short of stunning, and there is a complexity and intricacy to the song that is instantly captivating.  At the same time, it is the tone with which he plays that pulls the listener deep into "Eight Miles High," and it easily transcends any genre classification, as one can hear everything from folk to psychedelia within the musical arrangement.  It is this distinctive ability to create a totally unique sound and mood within his playing that is in may ways the definition of the music of Leo Kottke, and even after more than four decades, the patterns and melodies to "Eight Miles High" are just as inviting and intriguing.  Yet at the same time, it is the way that the rhythm section works almost quietly behind the guitars that creates such an amazing mood, as there is a fragility to the song that exudes a warmth unlike any other recording in history.  The almost gentle, yet somehow dramatic bassline is in a class all its own, and the way the drums seem to skip quickly around the entire arrangement lends a perfect level of tension.  As all of the instruments move as a single unit, it becomes impossible to not be completely immersed in the overall tone and mood of the song, and this is the key to the appeal of "Eight Miles High."

Along with his wonderfully distinctive sound on guitar, Leo Kottke's voice is just as welcoming and recognizable.  Truth be told, though he once described his own voice as, "geese farts on a muggy day," Kottke's voice throughout "Eight Miles High" is absolutely perfect.  Much like his guitar work, there is a gentleness that lies underneath each word he sings, and yet his voice has a great deal of power and style that sets his further beyond any of his peers.  Also similar to the music over which he sings, the vocal sound Kottke presents does not quite fit into any conventional musical categorization, as it is perhaps a bit too dark or mysterious for folk, and finds no similarities in any other genre.  In many ways, the sound of Leo Kottke simply "is" Leo Kottke, and his singing on "Eight Miles High" is easily one of the finest vocal performances of his entire career.  It is also the way that Kottke is able to convey the lyrics, as he perfectly captures the somewhat mysterious, perhaps cryptic spirit behind the words.  It is the words to "Eight Miles High" that further reinforce the idea of a connection to the psychedelic movement, as the lyrics are rather philosophical and poetic, with one of the finest lines coming when Kottke sings, "...nowhere is there hope to be found, among those afraid of losing their ground..."  The combination of Kottke's distinctive voice and such thought-provoking words serve as the ideal finishing touch to a truly spectacular musical experience.

When one steps back and further inspects the intricate guitar patterns that are found throughout "Eight Miles High," one can find countless later artists that either lifted these riffs in their entirety, or clearly took a strong influence from the sound and arrangement.  Even after hearing the sound countless times, it is the fact that the guitar work never fails to hypnotize the listener that is perhaps the most revealing of what a unique orchestration and performance that can be found on "Eight Miles High," and it is this reality that sets it amongst the finest recordings in the entire career of Leo Kottke.  Yet at the same time, it is the fact that Kottke sings on this track which enables listeners to appreciate the entirety of his artistry, as a majority of his recordings to this point had been entirely instrumental affairs.  Kottke's voice is as strong as ever on "Eight Miles High," and yet it is the welcoming, gentle, yet unquestionably secretive way that he approaches singing that makes this song a musical journey unlike any other in history.  The combination of all of this is on all levels a comprehensive definition of just why Leo Kottke remains such an icon of music to this day, as there has never been another artist that has been able to achieve similar sounds or moods within their music.  Boasting a massive recorded catalog that includes countless songs that have never been matched, few of his own recordings can match the overall sound and presence found on Leo Kottle's extraordinary 1971 song, "Eight Miles High."

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