[21 October 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The guitar, by design, does not cater to melody easily. Oh yes, plenty of people have made melodic statements on the guitar, you don’t have to look too hard for evidence of that. But rolling a languid line off of a fretboard is not the same as peeling it off of a flute or a keyboard. With that, many an instrumental icon have taken the guitar’s limitations and used them for what they’re worth. John Fahey, for all his melodic gifts, specialized in the broken chord to underline his melodies. Leo Kottke took those same broken chords and gave them a rhythmic drive. Michael Hedges took it even further by stretching his melodies high and low while working the rhythmic aspects even harder, pioneering a new approach to the instrument that used both hands on both ends of the neck (and sometimes the whole body). This is roughly where Kaki King stepped in nearly ten years ago with her debut album Everybody Loves You, an all acoustic guitar album that allowed her to snatch the torch of her instrument’s instrumental folk heritage and run it down a future full of enthusiastic syntheses. And she apparently had skills and dexterity to match; I had read that she once recorded, mixed, and mastered three songs in three hours. Twice I wrote to her, asking how she did that (no, she never got back to me).
After alternating between vocal performances and tinkering with the full band format, King makes a return to the (almost) solo instrumental guitar format on Glow. She and producer D. James Goodwin, who takes a few bass credits as well, turned to the New York-based ETHEL string quartet for occasional shading. Apart from those exceptions, Glow is solo Kaki King. She even does all of the percussion. Understandably, this album does not come out sounding like a coffee shop loner playing to empty space. Glow is a very produced and atmospheric record, something that fits King’s style easily. In fact, you could say that these production values are better suited to the guitar’s limitations as per the first paragraph.
Like many six-stringed slingers, Kaki King is forced to encounter melody in an entirely different way from, say, a pianist. Her motifs are mainly chord-shaped figures that get rolled around in her hands again and again. Reverb is applied just so to carry the peak notes to the listener, giving each track more of an aura than an identity. The opener, “Great Round Burn”, doesn’t give an impression beyond being just a scene setter with King’s lines being at the mercy of the hand shapes that jockey up and down as ETHEL lays down a plain but steady pulse. Things get going for the better on “Streetlight in the Egg”, a harmonically-delightful thump of a ditty that always returns to a simmer just before it boils. This last trait also applies to “Cargo Cult”, a song that waits for something to happen, complete with menacing, foreshadowing “dung-dugga-dugga-dung” powerchords from a background electric guitar. Knowing the song’s title, named for New Guinea natives who create airfields in a time of need, a “build-it-and-they-will-come” attitude, this might have been intentional. (Like most people, I know of the term “cargo cult” thanks to the last chapter of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.)
For all of the advantageous production choices, Glow comes with a certain stylistic parity that keeps it at bay after the second listen. As far as the melodic limitations of the guitar go, my favorite part of Glow isn’t even one that showcases a melody - it’s the carefully placed bass notes on the waltz “No True Masterpiece Will Ever Be Complete”.