Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

An eclectic survey of recent recordings

By Stephen Grimstead

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  Leo Kottke
Standing In My Shoes
(Private Music)

LEO KOTTKE HAS QUIetly and regularly released great albums to a relatively small but tenaciously devoted following since 1969; Standing In My Shoes is his 24th record in 28 years.

Sometimes Kottke sings and plays, sometimes he just plays. Although it's probably fair to say that his reputation was built on his unique way with 12- and 6-string acoustic guitars, his laconic approach to a lyric does not go unnoticed. And even though Leo himself once described his voice as sounding like "geese farts on a muggy day," many of his fans dig the quirkiness of his vocals (sign me up for that), which perfectly suit the quirkiness of his material. (If you know and aren't fond of his vocals, you'll be glad to discover that all but three of Standing's 11 tracks are instrumentals.)

Right about now the reviewer in me wants to conjure up a series of other artists to whom I might compare Kottke, for those who are not familiar with his stuff. But there just aren't any dandy comparisons to be made. Legendary finger-style folk-guitar virtuoso John Fahey helped to launch Kottke's career way back when, and they're often lumped together, stylistically speaking. Kottke, however, has taken his art much further than Fahey has taken his own, all due respect, etcetera. (Besides, if you know Fahey, you probably know Kottke.) New Age pioneer/acoustic guitar iconoclast Michael Hedges points to Kottke as a major influence, and they've even toured together a bit. But they certainly don't sound like one another, and New Age is certainly not Kottke's thing.

Kottke is renowned for his slide-guitar chops, but don't imagine him to be a bluesman.

No, Leo equals Leo, and that's that. A tribe of one.

For the initiated, I will report that Kottke is still wry as hell, he's still got tricks up the sleeve to spare, and he's still trying to scratch that perennial itch, forever located just out of reach. And though the "gallows humor" which informed much of his earlier work is in evidence to a lesser extent on this record, he's still seriously (though calmly) edgy.

-- Stephen Grimstead


311
Transistor
(Capricorn)

ON TRANSISTOR, 311'S FOURTH release for Capricorn, the band has finally hit upon a combination of styles that places them a respectable distance from the long shadows cast by their hip-hop/Rasta/metal heroes. Sure, those influences are still rife, even vital, but this latest collection (weighing in at a whopping 21 songs) engages the head to a considerably greater degree than did their earlier albums. Cosmic stuff, this.

Blasting out of a hemp haze and into almost every nook and cranny between here and the far side of the Milky Way, 311 strike a thrilling contrast to those throngs of chart-topping, terminally depressed slouch-rockers who act and sound as if simply plugging in their instruments might well put them on the wrong side of some uncool point of diminishing returns. When vocalist/guitarist Nick Hexum says "Stay positive and love your life," it's clear that he's not spouting psycho-pabulum. Instead, you get the impression that he has thought long and hard about living a life of despair, only to conclude that "The word that I heard was so absurd/I can't believe it slipped from my lips/The tongue with which it was sung was so dumb/I wish to pull it from my skull/What the fuck was I thinking?"

Transistor is trippy, but not dippy, not really. Okay, the band's somewhat naive philosophizing probably wouldn't withstand the stern scrutiny of a G. Gordon Liddy tirade, but G. Gordon Liddy is a spirit-crushing slab of wank, so who cares? In other words: From the gut, straight up to the brain, 311's new album affirms the wonder and worth of it all.

Very few bands combine testosterone-driven crunch, funk/hip-hop/reggae groove, and well-placed psychedelia this effectively. I have a feeling that Transistor will come to be regarded as 311's signature album. -- S.G.


Tom Varner
Martian Heartache
(Soul Note)

REVELING IN THE COMPLETELY unexpected, Varner and his extraordinary quintet juxtapose jazz styles with carefully executed abandon throughout this superb disc. Cool, controlled ensemble passages suddenly burst into a James Brown funk line while tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin plays a Ben Webster-inspired solo against the beat. Sweetly melodic ensemble lines serve as background to some wild, avant-garde solos, while Ellington-like phrases shift into call-and-response mayhem between Varner's French horn and the two saxophones.

In addition to Ellery and Varner, alto saxophonist Ed Jackson, drummer Tom Rainey, and bassist Drew Gress round out this fine band, with each kicking in a number of excellent solos. Guitarist Pete McCann adds some grinding fretwork on several tunes. The ensemble passages are marked by seamlessly smooth transitions with a remarkable cohesiveness and impeccable timing. There's a calm method to this apparent madness; in combining these seemingly unlike styles, Varner has created a virtuosic work tempered with a slightly surreal mirth. Check this one out. -- Gene Hyde


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