April 13, 2010 - Rounder
Often the question isn't so much about talent as what to do with it. In Kaki King's case, she established herself as a gifted, expressive acoustic guitarist comparable to stylistic heavyweights like John Fahey, Leo Kottke and Preston Reed with her first two albums, 2003's Everybody Loves You and 2004's Legs To Make Us Longer. She could've easily spent the next decade exploring the domain of virtuosic acoustic guitarist, earning special kudos for her gender. But like an uncut diamond, King was determined to showcase more facets and stretch her art beyond the cult appeal she'd already captured. She picked up an electric and started dotting subsequent albums with broader instrumentation and even vocals.
While her ambition was admirable, King took a lot of grief for her vocals and lyrics. Though instrumentals remained an integral part of her last two releases, critics seemed particularly hung up on King's underpowered voice and sometimes facile lyricism. It's all a bit disingenuous. How much time is spent critiquing Neko Case's guitar skills? It's apparent in King's case that while her playing remains sublime, the other aspects are a work in progress requiring some patience. However given the stirring theatricality of her instrumental arrangements and her refined melodic sensibilities, there's been ample reason for trust her evolving instincts. With Junior those hopes begin to bear fruit.
While Junior continues the musical thread of 2008's Dreaming Of Revenge, it's an even larger step forward. Here she fully embraces the pop/rock idiom adding a full-time rhythm section (multi-instrumentalist Dan Brantigan and drummer Jordan Perlson) helping underscore King's propulsive playing and provide supple depth without taking up too much sonic real estate. The mesh is wonderful, and dovetails with the guitarist's more measured effect, as she scales back the six-string pyrotechnics in service to songcraft. King's learning to do more by playing less, resulting in an album that's less flashy and busy but no less endearing, still pocked with nooks to house her arresting guitar textures.
When it chooses, Junior rocks with more verve and sustained sinew than anything she's released, demonstrating plenty of appeal beyond adherents of her moody, artistic guitar instrumentals. Not that those have disappeared, though they are but three of the eleven tracks. However their presence balances the album, widening the experience and establishing greater sonic character. As such, Junior succeeds as much as a whole as through individual tracks.
It begins with the rush of "The Betrayer" whose prickly guitar opening suggests a radio signal before blooming into a swerving atmospheric rocker that deftly turns romantic treachery into espionage. King's cinematic couplets match the track's coursing energy. King employs hammer-ons to construct a warm burbling backdrop for "Spit It Back in My Mouth," and settles into a folky, acoustic neo-psychedelic drift for "The Hoopers Of Hudspeth," laconic beauty of which suggests the Church.
The instrumentals "Everything Has An End, Even Sadness" and "My Nerves That Committed Suicide" are slotted as the third and sixth tracks. The former's a dreamy, lilting track, with equal parts purpose and pastoral grace; the latter slowly gathers steam until two-thirds of the way through, when the drums announce their martial presence pulling the track taut for a few moments before letting it slip away like a receding tide. Though well executed, for once her instrumentals feel more like appetizers than main courses.
The album's last half is strong, highlighted by the hazy, organ-abetted "Hallucinations From My Poisonous German Streets" (whose languid, psychedelic-tinged amble recalls Mazzy Star until its vibrant percussive end), the knotty, charging, post-punk-flavored "Death Head" and the emotionally wrought "Sunnyside," which tries to find peace with a romance's dissolution over a pretty, spare acoustic guitar melody, joined by subtle piano backing during its final minute.
Junior retains King's gift for evocative guitarscapes, while engaging more of a rock dynamic. The shifting moods and pace helps sustain the album's energy and make it a very alluring listen. There's a significant amount of reverb on her vocals to aid her somewhat thin voice, but mostly she just sounds more emotionally engaged in the songs. While well-constructed, her fifth album nonetheless feels like King is still gathering her forces to make a powerful push for greater critical acclaim. Junior simply baits the anticipation.