|Rolling Stone, April 13, 1972|
Record Review: Greenhouse
A non-pretentious gem of an album from one of the three best steel-string, finger-picking guitarists alive. The other two being John Fahey and Robbie Basho, who still record for the enterprising Takoma label. Kottke started his career with Takoma with his marvelous, ground-breaking first album and then opted for the big time with Capitol. His last Capitol disc, entitled Mudlark, was muddied by unnecessary sidemen and weighted down with vocals. Not so this time around. In fact, there are no sidemen to speak of, more instrumentals than vocals and hardly any over-dubbing at all.
Not that Kottke can't sing. All four vocals on this album are distinguished and though Kottke's voice has come in for criticism in some quarters, I can't see why. On "Tiny Island" and "From The Cradle To The Grave" he evokes a prismatic Fred Heil-ish quality. The former is an encircling Al Gaylor lyric of memory and yearning that combines the fluidity of Kottke's guitar with the mellowed anguish of the words. "From the Cradle" is a Ron Nagle effort that is, in some ways, an up-tempo restatement of "Island." More dynamic, but with the tensions still intact -- tensions that, in the final verse and chorus, come to crystalline resolution.
The other two vocals are even more impressive. "Louise" is, of course, one of Paul Seibel's best songs and Kottke's sympathetic, country-flavored treatment is not so much imitation, but an enhancing interpretation of a tune that is not so much a song, but a poem. Matched only by Kottke's own "You Don't Have To Need Me," which is a vari-tempoed, quixotically textured love paean/confessional ("Lifetimes can get so lonely that sometimes it's just a joke") that is his most daring and, in some ways, most exhilarating vocal on this album.
But, that is not even half of the strengths that this disc offers. Kottke's instrumentals, from a couple of John Fahey tunes to the traditional "Lost John," are not only well done, but combine the sensual with the cerebral -- unlike any other solo guitarists except the often obtuse Fahey and the sometimes overly-sensual Basho. Kottke's realm is an amalgamation and cross-pollination of their approaches -- contrast the hymn-like lucidity of "In Christ There Is No East of West" with the convoluted sensuality of "Owls" of the flashback epiphany of "The Spanish Entomologist," for example. The "slithery" and down-hill melodied "Song of the Swamp" also is balanced by the wide-open "Bean Time," a perfect tune to start an album with.
Kottke continues to amaze. Part of the reason for the quality of the sound on this disc, both literally and figuratively, is that it was produced by Denny Bruce of Takoma Productions and engineered by Shorty Martinson. Which brings up Fahey and Basho once more -- each brilliant in their own right (Fahey's new disc, full of melancholy and loneliness is aptly titled America -- Takoma 1030), but among all the solo guitar practitioners, Kottke is the most varied of the lot. If you passed up Mudlark, don't worry about it -- pick up on Greenhouse instead. -- Gary von Tersch
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