Genres: Indie Rock/Pop, Instrumental Rock, Modern Folk
RIYL: Sleater-Kinney, Preston Reed, Do Make Say Think
Kaki King was once heralded as “Queen of the Acoustic Guitar” by NPR and several guitar magazines. Her second LP and groundbreaking major label debut Legs to Make Us Longer won fans over with its sensational crossover appeal. It was simultaneously a pleasure to the ears of guitar acrobatic-aficionados who enjoy artists such as Preston Reed and John Fahey, and it also found a niche with singer-songwriter types that enjoyed her unconventional yet catchy song structures.
While her first two albums were mostly instrumental forays into her musical vocabulary, complete with tapping sections and her ability to play rhythm, melody, and harmony all at the same time on one instrument, her past three records have her flexing her vocal and compositional muscles. The results have been hit-or-miss; new-found fans in the mainstream music industry such as Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and ?Love of The Roots probably helped propel her popularity and perhaps even gave her the motivation to write more pop-oriented songs. However, as you can see in videos of her live shows, fans enjoy the new tunes, but tend to request the songs in which she would be playing just about everything by herself, and often sans vocals.
It’s not to say that Ms. King’s vocal stylings aren’t pleasant, but you can tell that she’s a bit raw and maybe untrained. At first, the best part of listening to Junior is that she doesn’t have a whiny or nasally vocal styling so prevalent with most female-fronted indie rock bands or singer-songwriters. You won’t find excessive vibrato or carelessness of content. However, you’ll also notice that she finds a comfortable range and sticks to it. So when you get to the most intense moments of songs like the opener, “The Betrayer,” she continues to tread in that same range. She does, however, make use of as many layers as possible to round out these shortcomings, often incorporating more instruments to fill the sound, or adding vocal harmonies to the lines.
Instrumental rock purists and fans of Kaki’s older material will find lots to like about the three instrumental tracks on the album, which are all dazzling in their own way. “Everything Has An End, Even Sadness,” is delicate and airy, taking a reverb-washed guitar, adding some delayed snare drum, and building horns upon it a la Do Make Say Think. In fact, her instrumental cuts, along with portions of her other songs nod heavily to the post-rock genre. Fans of DMST and Mogwai will find lots to like.
“My Nerves That Committed Suicide” is the second of these instrumental jams. This time, going back to her familiar acoustic guitar, she brings along an Ennio Morricone inspired background for the intro. Ennio was well-known for being one of the most influential composers of the Spaghetti Western film genre (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”), and Kaki takes advantage of it. But as its atmospheric journey just begins to float towards an end, a distorted guitar, bass, and thumping drums arrive once again to make post-rock fans take note. The builds are not contrived, but feel natural, like an extension of the song that was meant to be there instead of just going through the motions.
The final instrumental cut is the penultimate track “Sloan Shore,” which shows off Kaki’s old chops once again. Multi-layered guitar and bass float in and out of the song, but at times, you can tell she’s playing everything on one instrument. A little lap-steel here, some electric guitar swells there, and you can tell that she identifies with her past compositions to this day.
Right before you reach the mid-way point on the album, the astounding 7/8 time signature rocker “Falling Day” hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s amazing to think that she puts this together on a baritone ukulele of all instruments!
“Everything comes from somewhere else / everyone stays alone,” she sings in the pre-chorus. She even throws in some polyrhythms as she sings to you repeatedly, “So I’m told.” It’s completely appropriate that this is the single the label is pushing; it’s a phenomenal track, catchy, and will sit in your head for days. I find myself sitting on the bus on my way to work with the rhythm playing in my head. It also helps that the main chorus feels like a post-punk song not unlike Interpol and Bloc Party of this recent genre revival, so it’s quite an earworm.
Another favorite has to be the Pavement influenced “My Communist Friends.” It’s as if you could imagine Stephen Malkmus writing this for Wowee Zowee. It’s got a laid-back jazzy feel with simplistic bass and drums, and when she laugh sighs, “Oh you’re gonna die? Ohhh ho,” she echoes the playful vibe of Malkmus’ songwriting. The only detractor is the obviously sequenced drumming, which while humanized to an extent, sounds like she put it together in her basement in about an hour.
For an interesting genre jump, check out the metallic rocker “Death Head,” which sounds like a mix between “Helicopter” by Bloc Party and a video game boss battle (especially the closing guitar solo). “Tell me if the damage here will last forever,” Kaki pleads, all while the keyboard layers swirl around her with the pulsing bass and driving drums. It blooms into a chorus with layered harmonies and vocodered vocals which is a great payoff to the listener patient enough to wait for it.
Junior is definitely a bitter album; if you can’t tell from the song titles, it’ll definitely show itself in the lyrics. Kaki is very straightforward and avoids being too flowery with her word choices. Unlike most lyricists who want to bust out the thesaurus to figure out how to say the same thing but “uniquely,” Kaki understands the appeal of the direct approach.
While this is all wonderful, the main issue is that many of the songs don’t stick the landing. Much like the simultaneously challenging and frustrating Until We Felt Red…, it just appears she is trying to do too much. Her band mates, while incredible musicians, can really only go where she wants them to go, and her voice isn’t strong enough to carry the whole album. When she tries to sound bitter on the closer, “Sunnyside,” you hear her sing, “Yeah I fucked up good and well / And you put me through fucking hell,” it sounds far too forced.
It used to be that Kaki let her guitar do all of the talking. Now that she’s doing so with her voice, she needs a stronger balance for a more complete album (see her previous album, Dreaming of Revenge, for the perfect balance). It’s not the quantity of songs that she sings in, but how her vocal placement fits the music. She obviously has the capabilities and skill to use tons of instruments, and she could make better use of it.
However, amongst all of these complaints, you can’t help but be happy for Kaki. She’s like the Sidney Crosby of the indie rock world. Whatever criticism she faces, she takes on it head-on. When people called her too one-dimensional for doing all acoustic guitar, she started working more with her electric. When critics yearned for vocals; she started singing. When those compositions were too bare, she began writing amazingly complex layered compositions (“Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers” from Until We Felt Red… and “Can Anyone Who Has Heard This Music Really Be a Bad Person?” from Dreaming of Revenge). And here again, she challenges herself to appeal to the masses.
And, as with Crosby, she will not be without her detractors who hate her for being so good and unwilling to back down from any challenge. And this is why you should give Junior your full and undivided attention, regardless if you’re a fan of her newer material or clinging on to her “glory days” from yesteryear. She’s not trying to start a revolution, but she knows how to stick out from the pack while still being true to herself. Bravissimo.
Images Courtesy of Kaki King.com