I don’t know if Kaki King timed the release of ...Until We Felt Red just so, but the guitar virtuoso’s third release sounds perfect to my ears as I sit here and type at the onset of August, my fingers working not nearly hard enough to justify the amount of sweat on my brow. Apart from incredible command of her instrument, King’s greatest strength is that her songs are worthy of the pyrotechnics. In the tradition of forebears Michael Hedges, Leo Kottke, John Fahey and further back and beyond, she is clearly committed to more than dropping your jaw with preternatural technique—though that’s a hell of a lot of fun, too. From the start, on 2003’s Everybody Loves You, solo guitar compositions like “Night After Sidewalk” and “Happy As a Dead Pig in the Sunshine” weren’t mere exercises in scale climbing and alternate tuning, they were songs. So they are on Red, with King pushing even further toward her original voice as a musician.
The first thing fans of Everybody and 2004’s Legs To Make Us Longer, will notice is the singing. While those first two albums were not completely without the human voice, Red features King’s delicate cooing (think Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki) much more prominently. But that’s not all that’s different. Opener “Yellowcake” wraps folky fingerstyle around pedal steel and light drum work, while King whisper-sings “It appears Unavoidable / Glittering stars… Will come to you”, befitting the song’s breezy, nocturnal feel. The vocals multiply and layer over one another; even though her singing gifts aren’t nearly as abundant as her guitar-playing, King knows how to use them efficiently as another instrument/texture in her work. Similarly, “Jessica” is voice-driven without demanding too much melodically. The heavy lifting is reserved for the swirling, atmospheric full band arrangement, belying a giant infatuation with My Bloody Valentine and other shoegazing titans.
The abrupt departure from the fret-slapping heroics of her first two records helps explain a little of the backlash King has received from so-called guitar purists, who might have suspected her ambitions weren’t the same as theirs. ...Until We Felt Red is an album of unabashed curiosity, leaping from post-rock cacophony on the title track (aided in no small way by producer John McEntire of Tortoise et al) to the gentle, shimmering suite “You Don’t Have to Be Afraid” to weird jazz of “First Brain” in the span of a few tracks. King is unafraid to dabble, to indulge, and to go in several directions at once. This development is extremely promising, as Legs To Make Us Longer followed the patterns of her debut a little too closely. ...Until We Felt Red feels a bit like the musical equivalent of Italo Calvino’s celebrated experimental novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, where each successive chapter sought to maintain the anticipatory nature and freshness of the first. This might come across as disorienting, or even messy, but it’s anything but boring.
Even the slow, slightly underwhelming middle pairing of “I Never Said I Love You” and “Ahuvati” seems to serve the purpose of musical diversity, setting the table for the playful dynamics of “These Are the Armies of the Tyrannized”. “Second Brain” follows with a deeply zooming bass and a xylophone waterfall. McEntire’s production reveals him to be the perfect mentor/compatriot for King. Both enjoy the tug-of-war between proficiency and balls-out experimentation. Regardless if they choose to work together again, their collaboration on Red is sure to be artistically fruitful for King. The closing track is the excellently titled “Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers”, a seamless, groove-filled, even danceable song with cowboyish slide guitar that points to a red sun setting on a horizon one feels compelled to move toward.