Slide Away Tension
“As soon as we landed [I felt] all this tension and baggage sliding away,” Leo Kottke says of Costa Rica, where he and collaborator Mike Gordon recorded Sixty Six Steps, the follow-up to the duo’s Clone (2002). Listening to the album has the same effect. A calypso-laced stylish slice of wonderful, Sixty Six Steps uses jaunty island influences to create a tranquil, unaffected reminder of life’s quiet spaces.
Inspired by Gordon’s memories of calypso band The Mustangs, heard on a childhood trip to the Bahamas, Sixty Six Steps is an experimental piece that deliberately sets about fusing island rhythms with Kottke and Gordon’s usual folksy rock and blues. The result is not so far removed from Clone, but the experiment adds a neat touch. It is perhaps Clone 2—with a citric twist. The album succeeds as well as it does because Kottke and Gordon have held on to every single element that worked on Clone—the otherworldly lyrics, battling guitars, and the stripped back, ultra-smooth vocals delivered with a casualness that often betrays their gravity. The calypso vibe, therefore, merely invigorates an already workable sound.
The opening track, a cover of Pete Seeger’s “Living in the Country”, demonstrates off the bat how effectively Kottke and Gordon’s experiment works. Seeger has already acknowledged his adoration for Kottke’s 1968 version of the piece (it’s appeared on several Kottke recordings since), and this new reworking eviscerates the flute-y, flowing-river ambience of Seeger’s original and Kottke’s speedier cover. This one brings to mind Mai Tais and umbrellas and senoritas dancing in the waves. The fresh arrangement of such a well-known piece, driven by that spirited calypso beat, manages to set the tone for the album so that nothing is a surprise—not even the bizarre and brilliant takes on Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and “Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”.
As cool as these covers are (“Sweet Emotion” is played on a baglama, of all things), it’s slightly disappointing that Kottke and Gordon chose them over more of their own compositions. As it is, Kottke sings two original songs, while Gordon gets five. Great as Gordon is—his “The Stolen Quiet” is a perfectly twisted break-up song featuring the line, “With your diet soda gone there’s more room for my beer”—Kottke’s an underrated and under-appreciated legend with a pen. On his “Balloon” and “Twice”, Kottke does his thing as only he can do it, spinning the simplest of images to represent the peaks and troughs of everyday existence. Take “Twice”, for instance. In just a few words, Kottke compares the grandness of a city skyline to the dirt behind an alleyway:
When the stars up in the sky / When the lights along the street / When the TVs in the motel shine / Every night somebody’s cryin’ / Down the alley on the cold, cold ground / Someone’s running but they’ll never, never flee ... Sometimes darkness is the only light we see.
As the song moves along, lights turn out, beauty fades, and Kottke near shames the sky’s natural starlight by revealing the poverty and desperation it oversees. “Balloon” works similarly, only better. It’s about, according to my interpretation anyway, looking away from personal destruction towards the playful and absurd areas of life. Kottke delivers his message with oddly hopeful phrases like: “When your friends tell you you’re not the same / Grapefruit skies allow”, and this, “When the raccoon steals the cheese behind Pandora’s other box / Or the one you love is shopping for a helmet made of rocks / Balloon”. It all makes a strangely hopeful kind of sense when Kottke sings it, so upbeat even when delivered in his signature monotone.
Even without lyrics, though, Kottke and Gordon manage to evoke specific images and texts. This is really where they stand out as musicians. It’s horribly clichéd, but their guitars almost converse in tracks “Cherry County” and “From Spink to Correctionville”. That last one might have a island edge, but you’d be forgiven for thinking Harry Dean Stanton was on hand, playing to the very same depressive back drop he did in Cool Hand Luke. Words and vibes and situations flood to mind during these tracks, not always beach-related as other numbers, but sunny, nonetheless.
The guys prove with these particular choices just how slickly and smoothly calypso can work its way in and out of guitar-based pop without confusing the ear. It celebrates its island rhythms only to a point; there’s still much folk to be found. Sixty Six Steps doesn’t feel like a calypso record. It’s exactly as it’s meant to be—an experiment in flavors, perfectly blended.