A guy named LEONARD:
Leo's third album and the one right before he jumped up to the major labels. It's almost all original vocal songs and almost all of those are more on the whimsical side of Leo's personality. When the album takes on a more somber tone is where I really get into it. 'So Cold in China' begins a trilogy of ballads on the second half of this album that really digs down deep and gets to the core of Leo's appeal for me. The original version of 'Easter and the Sargasso Sea' appears here (its title was trimmed down to just 'Easter' a few years later on Leo's first live album) and is followed by the meditative, Nick Drake-ish 'Prodigal Grave.' The album is good, but those three songs are quintessential Leo. Unfortunately, the album has never been reissued and has never appeared on CD.
Leo Kottke — self-titled (1976)
Leo's first post-Capitol album finds him in instrumental territory that's a bit more polished. Jack Nitzsche actually gets an arrangement credit here and while not all the tunes are as lush and ambitious as something like 'Range', the album certainly does sound like it had a bigger budget than any of Leo's previous albums. There's a more somber note on some tunes like 'The White Ape' and 'Maroon' (dig that harp!) and that's where the bigger arrangements shine. Leo's also playing through more effects than ever before, so without the statement of any real memorable themes, it gets by more on mood than actual tunes. But that mood is a very happy, playful and content one, for the most part (see the multi-movement groover 'Death by Reputation' for the most obvious example). I guess there are some group of fans that feel like the slicker, bigger presentation ruins this album, but, I don't know, on tunes like the closer 'Shadowland', I can see the validity both in the album version and Leo's solo version played live. Still, for one of Leo's all instrumental albums, I'd definitely say it's a representative one and one of his most easily likeable overall.
Leo Kottke — Burnt Lips (1978)
Seriously bad cover, Leo. But, I guess he has his share of unflattering album artwork. It's much more sparse than his previous album. The overdubbed guitars on a killer rendition of 'Cool Water' are about as produced as this one gets. There is a more pronounced sense of melancholy here that is enhanced by the setting of just Leo and his guitar. It's almost split down the middle between vocal and instrumental tunes, but Leo pops up singing a couple times on side two. Tunes like 'The Credits: Out-Takes from Terry's Movies' and especially 'Everybody Lies' push this album into a decidedly more somber territory than Leo had been covering for his previous few albums, but they are certainly winners. It's also a much longer album than his previous two albums, suggesting that he put his whole heart into this one, and that really shows. This one's definitely the one to go for in his late 70's output.
Leo Kottke — Balance (1979)
This is much more produced and much slicker than anything Leo had done previously. The whole album has a full band of studio musicians backing Leo, playing a very fluffy country-infused soft rock. The implied rockabilly on the instrumental 'Whine' is nice, however, and so is the layered riffing on 'Dolores.' But, for the most part, you're in for super slick soft rock cheese like 'Losing Everything' and 'Tell Mary' that does Leo no favors. The presentation might be overcome if the tunes were better, but they just aren't. The sleeve note by Leo is perhaps most telling: amidst a dense christmas metaphor, he tells of how depressed he is. And then, wouldn't you know, he makes mostly lifeless music. Some decent stuff to pick out of the muck, but yeah: probably his worst album at this point.
Leo Kottke — Time Step (1983)
Leo steppin' into the 80's in a still kind of cheesy soft rock groove. Production is just as unnecessarily flashy as before, but the tunes are a bit better this time out; some of it recalling Neil Young's twangier stuff of the time (Emnmylou Harris on background vocals on a few songs certainly only enhances the comparison). It's definitely Leo's most overtly country album. It does have kind of a weirdo "outsider" vibe that a lot of early 80's non-punk guitar-based music has — like this hick has no business doing anything around this high tech recording equipment. I don't hate it, but T-Bone Burnett's production just doesn't suit Leo very well. Some good ones to consider: the instrumental 'Mr. Fonebone' and the Kris Kristofferson cover 'Here Comes that Rainbow Again.'
Leo Kottke — A Shout Toward Noon (1986)
Surprisingly good, despite the completely unnecessary synthesizers that pop up sporadically. The extra break and label switch probably had a lot to with the upswing in quality here. It's an all instrumental album that consistently reaches into an emotional territory that was sparsely heard on any of Leo's previous albums. Check out the closer 'Ice Field' for the album highlight. He digs up 'Easter and the Sargasso Sea' again and titles it, predictably, 'Easter Again' and the tune fits in extremely well here. Lotta folks considered this mellowing out to be Leo finally settling into the new age section, but I dunno. He seemed to me to play pretty consistently with this introspective tone the entire time, the tempos here are just a lot slower, so inwardly gazing melodies have more time to sink in, I reckon. This started a long run for Leo on the Private Music label, which I think was a little more empathetic towards Leo's presentation of his music, which is why the more sparse presentation works wonders.
Leo Kottke — My Father's Face (1989)
Leo going strong. I'm missing Regards from Chuck Pink which was released right before this one in the middle of this strong late 80's run. This one's a bit more jaunty and high spirited and the vocal numbers go back to Leo's more whimsical side (the marimba and accordion laden 'Why Can't You Fix My Car?' is almost like a less dissonant Captain Beefheart, if you can believe that). Though he does revisit 'Everybody Lies' here and manages to present the definitive version of the tune. Whoo boy, you know the deal. T-Bone Burnett is back on production, but he keeps things very classy and sparse. There's a bit of hand percussion and some complimenting keyboards, but overall, you couldn't call this album overproduced in even the loosest definition of the word. There's another revisit of an even older tune on the album's second half with 'Mona Ray' and it's a more spacious duet take on the tune; another winner. The album closes strong with the thoughtful instrumental 'Doorbell' and it's a bit surprising that Leo was this late into the game knocking out such wonderful albums. A very mature and wondrous album, but not without that classic sense of humor.
Leo Kottke — That's What (1990)
Weird to think the music I was into when this album was new. Funny how time can do that to you. A mere twenty years passes you by and your thoughts about everything have shifted so drastically, yet so fluidly that things sync up in very strange ways. Leo had advanced so far from his initial approach to making music in 1970 that, when you hear 'Buzzby' for the first time —and after digesting Leo's near-complete catalogue— it seems like the perfect sort of weird pop that Leo should be making twenty years on from 6 and 12 String Guitar. And it's exceptionally rewarding to hear him arrive at such an artistic peak so late in the game. The album is decidedly more jazzy than anything Leo had done previously. Something like 'What the Arm Said', for instance, is a genuinely new sound for Leo. The addition of Billy Peterson's electric or acoustic bass on most of the tracks really ups the jazzy atmosphere, but there is a distinctly unique feeling to this album that sits outside jazz and folk completely. It's not new agey, because it's far too intellectually grounded for that. I can't quite put my finger on it, but the tune 'Mid Air' really illustrates this feeling perfectly. It's nearly classical in its scope, but it feels at least partly improvised. I mean hell, the subtle horn arrangement on the Carla Bley cover 'Jesus Maria' has shades of David Axelrod in it! Really wish there were some readily available clips so you'd have an idea of what I'm trying to get, instead of fumbling around these airy-fairy keyboard farts I'm throwing at you. But shucks, these Private discs aren't even on YouTube for the most part (but this one is on Spotify). Oh well. You'll just have to arrive here on your own, like I did. Hopefully, it won't take you twenty years.