Atlanta, Georgia native and instrumentalist extraordinaire Kaki King has the distinction of being named the first ever female "Guitar God" by Rolling Stone magazine. And for good reason: her trademark combination of finger-tapping, fret-slapping and percussive use of a heavily detuned acoustic guitar is regarded as original and has been widely recognized by independent music fans and musicians for years.
She has gotten exposure on weeknight comedy shows, including Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman. King has also entered the realm of film, as she composed music for and appeared in the 2007 Warner Bros. film August Rush as a "guitar-playing hand double," and wrote music to several scenes for famed actor/director Sean Penn's Into The Wild movie. Its soundtrack features music by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder as well. King got still more mainstream exposure when she dueted with Dave Grohl on the track "Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners," from the Foo Fighters' 2007 CD Echoes, Silence, Patience, & Grace.
Thus, Kaki King has created quite a buzz for herself, and this past week performed at the annual SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. That week also saw the release of her fourth album Dreaming Of Revenge, her third for Velour Music Group. She originally lit up the world of instrumental music with her acoustic guitar wizardry five years ago via her debut album titled Everybody Loves You (Velour). And for a while, she was content to stay in that field — through her second LP Legs To Make Us Longer, released in 2004.
Each of her records has its own identity, yet is distinctly Kaki. But starting with 2006's Until We Felt Red, the guitarist expanded her range of sound by adding some vocals, electric and steel guitar, as well as other sonic elements. On Dreaming Of Revenge, King adds more sounds to her repertoire and in the process does veer somewhat from her past, as she goes for more accessibility in some areas. On the record, Kaki plays most of the instruments, including drums, keyboards, bass, pedal steel and lap steel guitar, along with heavily down-tuned electric and acoustic guitars. Malcolm Burn, who has worked with the likes of Iggy Pop, Peter Gabriel and Patti Smith was the producer.
Burn's and King's stated goal for the album was to record more "pop" songs, but construct them in a way that still sounds like Kaki King music. And there are some overtly poppy tunes on Revenge, which may not please some of her older fans. Lead single "Pull Me Out Alive" showcases King's soft, airy vocals, which fit this indie-pop song just fine. With palm-muted guitar chords and ringing melodies, along with verse-chorus vocals, it's probably the most conventional pop song she's ever written. The instrumental that follows, "Montreal," is a bouncier slice of guitar-based indie-pop. It starts out with quiet hammer-on riffs on her electric guitar, then bass & drums come in amidst more layers of airy, reverb-aided electric and steel guitar.
"So Much For So Little" is a bit of a bore at first, then gets interesting well into the song. "Air And Kilometers" is another highlight, with its odd tempo and layered electric, lap steel and acoustic guitars. At its climax, the track is romantic, dreamy and spacious, with strings that have an almost baroque arrangement, and features other soundscapes that float in and out of hearing space. The hypnotic "Open Mouth" has King using her detuned acoustic as a percussive instrument, then playing along to some well-orchestrated strings. Her country-esque pedal steel guitar licks on "Life Being What It Is" are catchy as well, though the lyrics leave much to be desired.
Other highlights include the first and last songs on the album, "Bone Chaos In The Castle," and "2 O'Clock," respectively. Both have many elements of her trademark guitar techniques, but "2 O'Clock" is the true centerpiece of the album, lyrically and musically. As she, an open lesbian told the music blog Stereogum recently, it's an emotional break-up song, with lyrics coming from the perspective of her ex-girlfriend. King takes the blame for what went wrong, and you can hear the sadness in her voice as she sings the last lyrics to this epic song, where her voice sort of starts to crack. But the best part of this epic track is the emotional fury of her acoustic riffs; she speeds up and down the guitar neck, slaps those power chords, creates some dissonance, builds and releases a lot of tension, all with some chaotic drumming to match. It's quite a journey listening to this song, and one worth repeating many times.
In all, Dreaming Of Revenge has a few unremarkable tracks but is a solid album that Kaki King's fans and other music lovers should enjoy. It's not Kaki King's best, as she has some growth to do lyrically ("2 O'Clock" aside). But King branched out into the indie pop world for a few songs, achieved mostly good results, and didn't abandon her past all that much in the process. She deserves credit for doing this instead of being repetitive and recreating her older records. As to those who may not or do not like the idea of Kaki King going into a poppier direction, may I ask you: Does it really matter if the songs have pop appeal or if they are just plain good? If you think the latter, you'll likely dig this album.
For more info on Kaki King, visit her Myspace page.
Note: On March 4, iTunes issued an exclusive version of Kaki King's Dreaming Of Revenge, which contains the bonus track "I Need A Girl Who Knows How To Read A Map.