What’s always made Kaki King’s records interesting, particularly on …Until We Felt Red and Dreaming of Revenge, was how she managed to shape her unruly guitar playing into clear songs. Despite its amazing precision, her virtuoso playing feels like it fits only its own structures, like percussion and voice and other instrumentation couldn’t possibly keep up. On those albums, King’s approach was simply to outnumber the guitar. Fill the songs up with lush instrumentation, more atmospheric songs to play off her pointillist riffs. And it worked well for her.
However, Junior is not the same kind of Kaki King record. It’s a rock record through and through, stripped down and raw. King took multi-instrumentalist Dan Bantigan and drummer Jordan Perlson into the studio with her, and the trio managed to make her most direct, immediate record to date.
That immediacy, however, hasn’t taken away from King’s exploration on the record. The first track, “The Betrayer”, is a tense rocker, telling a story of escape of espionage, of “running on rooftops”. The guitar work has a subtle complexity, but it makes way for the propulsive rhythm section and a seething vocal performance by King. The spy story — King is really interested in espionage, apparently — sets up an album where King assumes a number of different sounds perfectly. She’s not donning disguises, she’s assuming new lives.
The plink and plunk of her guitar weaves its way through “Falling Day”, but not in the sharp way we’re used to. The notes soften and meld together, King’s voice takes on a deep echo, and the song bursts to life with a frenetic energy, and an arena-rock size. Yet, it’s followed with the more unassuming, Americana shuffle of “The Hoopers of Hudspeth” and just when you think you’ve gotten comfortable, “My Nerves That Committed Suicide” comes in. It’s mostly wavering atmosphere, layers of guitar wafting in and out of the track, looping over each other — until the drums kick in and the song turns into a thundering menace.
Junior is an album with a curious mood. All of these sounds are bracing, charged with energy, but there’s a cloud hanging over it all. Even at its lightest — in the bright chord phrasings of “Communist Friends” — there’s that feeling of the danger being right around the corner. “Everything Has an End, Even Sadness” swirls like pre-storm clouds, and that mood lingers into the more up-tempo “Falling Day.” Closer “Sunnyside”, though its folk sound is as pastoral and bright as the title, is as raw a break-up song as you’re likely to hear this year.
In short, it’s an album that manages consistency without ever letting you get settled. Where each of her records has shown her brilliant musicianship, Junior is Kaki King’s finest accomplishment as a songwriter. The song titles might push a bit far — the unpleasantly named “Spit It Back in My Mouth” or the melodrama of “My Nerves that Committed Suicide — but the sounds fenced in under those names are immediately catching, while also containing a deep resonance.
Part of that resonance comes from shifting some of the subtle instrumentation that gives all her records a haunting atmosphere into her guitar playing too. She peels back on her more attention-getting techniques, lets the unworldly clusters of notes imbed themselves in the tracks a little bit. As a result, these are her most cohesive songs. Her guitar doesn’t work its way across these sonic landscapes — it is part of the landscape. What’s left to lead the fray but King’s voice, her stories of loss and paranoia and, often, hope. The way she sets you up and leaves you hanging brilliantly on lines like “What you gonna do when there’s nothing left, nothing left for them” hits harder than any riff here. As it turns out, good as her guitar playing is, it’s these stories, and the ready-to-burst emotions contained in them, that’ll keep you coming back to the album.