There is something incredibly zen about a hammock: a delicate balance, suspended relaxation. Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon mesh together guitar, bass, and percussion on their new album Sixty Six Steps to build a musical hammock - a swaying, easy, drowsy nap of an album that, while no balm for these troubling times, melts our stress and worry away with musical margaritas and the rhythmic tide.
This is the second go-around for this duo, and more and more it seems that these musicians were made for each other. Like the wacky two-headed monster from Sesame Street, they are locked together, flinging noises at each other until they arrive in the middle, making a single thought, a word, a phrase, sweet music. Both musicians are technically advanced and yet, here, cerebral interplay takes a backseat to just making something worth listening to. Ostensibly, the music flows from Kottke’s guitar with all sounds and vocals seeming to emanate from his strings, deliberately plucked with each spoken, sung, or played syllable enunciated perfectly. As the album moves on, there is no center; songs and notes flow together. You stop worrying about who is Tweedle Dee and who is Tweedle Dum, and then you just stop worrying altogether.
The disc splits evenly three ways – songs written by Gordon, songs written by Kottke, and covers. The opening track is an instrumental take on Pete Seeger’s “Living In the Country,” which sees waves of guitar flowing out to sea and then the tide returning with Gordon’s undertow. This is followed by Mike’s “The Grind,” which in recounting a lifelong wish to live “off the grid,” sets the tone for this 14-track island vacation. In this way, there is an implicit “concept album” feel to the disc, a kind of “No worries, Mon” mantra that bubbles up through the guitar twangs and beefy bass. The delicious cover of the Aerosmith classic “Sweet Emotion” is a perfect embodiment of this. The pair has sort of defanged this of its Aerosmithness, sanding down the Tyler/Perry edges of grit and sexuality and turning it into a lulling, plucky masterpiece. You may not hear a better cover song this year.
It isn’t until track 11 that a minor key makes its presence felt, with Kottke’s short, bluesy, relatively downtrodden “From Spink to Correctionville” momentarily interrupting the listener’s nap. This is quickly wiped from mind with track 12: “Yamar,” the Mike Gordon staple from his Phish days and a regular in the repertoire of Gordon/Kottke from their live show in their first go-around.
In Sixty Six Steps and in this collaboration in general, Mike Gordon once again has the Midas touch. It appears that every project he embarks upon is destined for greatness, whether it is a continuing engagement like his relationship with Leo, playing Uncle Mike to Lil’ Joe and Marco’s Duo, or just a one-off sit-in in a rock club with just about anyone and everyone. He continues to show off the impressive balance between making a true-to-self artistic statement and playing music that just plain kicks ass. In this light, the inclusion of “Yamar” feels less like reaching back to his past achievements (and the ticket/album buyers associated with them) than it does an overt statement of rebirth and redefinition. “I am Gordo, hear me roar!”
In the Venn diagram of their lives, the overlapping region of Gordon and Kottke’s circles is a quirky, amiable weirdness held down by a simple, cozy musicality. It is a place I could spend a lot of time. Now back to that nap.
JamBase | New York
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