[14 July 2004]
Add Phish bassist Mike Gordon to the list along with Rick Rubin and Jack White as younger artists who have helped, through collaboration, to reinvigorate the music of some legendary veterans. In 2002, Gordon and master finger-style guitarist Leo Kottke worked together on Clone, which helped ease Kottke’s “longstanding reluctance” toward improvisation. That freer, riskier atmosphere has led to the creation of Try and Stop Me, Kottke’s most improvisational studio recording.
Apart from the final track, which pairs Kottke with Los Lobos, Try and Stop Me consists of ten solo acoustic guitar pieces, from originals (“Axolotl”, “Then”) to reworkings and evolving pieces (“Monopoly”, “Stolen”) and a few covers (the surprising choice of “Mockingbird Hill”, made famous by Patti Page). It’s unlikely, however, that most listeners will be able to discern what pieces are “free-range” Kottke, and which were pre-arranged. But you don’t need to be a hard-core guitar aficionado to appreciate Try and Stop Me, and hopefully through his new association with Mike Gordon and Phish, Kottke will attract new and younger listeners to his craft and virtuosity. Curious indie rockers might also want to note Kottke’s influence on acts such as Pullman and Bosco & Jorge.
The first thing one notices on the first piece, “Monopoly”, is that the guitar strings sound spanking new. The buzzing, metallic texture sounds right at home on “Monopoly”, which is itself bright and springy. The song works well as an opening salvo; Kottke’s playing is as intricate and nimble as ever, while the overall song structure is simple enough not to knock you over away. Try and Stop Me‘s booklet includes notes on each song written by the man himself. “Monopoly” is described as “a take on a tune of mine from another label, another guitar, another time.” In the hard-to-define sphere that Kottke works in, straddling classical, folk, jazz, and more, reinventing old material is a more common practice than in other popular forms. The following track “Stolen” began as a harmony to a song called “Doc’s Guitar,” recorded back in the 70’s, according to Kottke’s notes. “Stolen” shares the sunny I-IV-V folkisms of “Monopoly” but with more off-kilter rhythms jerking the melodies around.
After a brief but earnest turn on “Mockingbird Hill” (made famous by Patti Page), comes one of the album’s standouts, “Then”. It’s the first cut on the album to venture into minor key territory, and Kottke plumbs some real emotional depth as the more structured lines stutter and breakdown. Too many virtuosos seek only to wow you with their technical prowess; even the most brilliant players can end up sounding cold and impersonal. That’s mercifully not the case here with Kottke. The willingness to improvise opens up his playing, particularly on “Then”, the shape-shifting, jazzy “Axolotl,” and “Unbar”, which playfully unwinds a traditional 12-bar blues. With a clear framework for each song and a few reference points, Kottke lets each moment feed into the next, unhampered by the restraints of strictly composed music.
The album closes with “The Banks of Marble”, written by Les Rice and recorded by the Weavers in 1949. It’s included here as a “special track,” as mentioned above, the one offering not performed on solo guitar, but with Los Lobos. Kottke, who once described his singing voice as “geese farts on a foggy day”, nevertheless takes on the old labor song with his grumpy old man baritone. The arrangement here is fun and loose, a celebratory and fitting end for an album that finds an old dog still finding new tricks.