Right away, Kaki King’s 2003 debut album Everybody Loves You came off like the first crucial, delicious, I’m-still-alive breath of fresh air that follows a solid whack from a 2×4. The opening track, “Kewpie Station”, was a flashy two-minute explosion of fingerpicking, fretboard tapping and percussive knuckle-rapping that seemed both too huge and too intricate to be coming from one diminutive young girl and her acoustic guitar. It was pretty much impossible not to get sucked into the rest of the album as a result. As luck would have it, the other tracks consisted largely of the emerging virtuoso showcasing her groundbreaking idiosyncratic playing method, which heaps all of the above on top of highly resonant open tunings and a left hand that arches over the top of the guitar neck instead of curling under the bottom like everyone else.
There’s a sad parallel of sorts to be struck with the opening of her latest album, Dreaming of Revenge. “Bone Chaos in the Castle” has a similarly captivating burst of aggression at its core, but this time King builds around it with layered distortions, intertwined auxiliary melodies and a smooth-talking snare groove. So far, so good. King has a prodigious command of texture and atmosphere — due in part to David Torn’s ill-fated tenure as her producer, no doubt — and she always coaxes out the three dimensional nature of her recordings with a subtlety that makes for a rewarding listen.
These days, however, the ornaments and additions all too often become the focus, and that’s where the two records diverge. Admittedly, it was sometimes difficult to tell how much of her initial appeal came from the compositions and how much from the fascination with her unorthodox approach to the instrument. King’s knee-jerk reaction of the latter has led her to spend the past few years trying to outrun herself for fear of being labeled a one-trick pony, and as a result always spends too much time trying to cross new barriers and not enough playing to her existing strengths. She needn’t worry. Her “trick” consists as much of the specific techniques as it does her general willingness to depart from every convention previously established for the guitar, and thus is much broader than she gives it credit for and needed much more than she may realize.
Although she freely cops to ripping off Preston Reed and was once on the wrong end of one too many Michael Hedges comparisons, while nobody was looking she also learned to orchestrate her way into an identity that is now entirely her own. On …Until We Felt Red, the drums practically held the main theme to “These are the Armies of the Tyrannized” and the vibes on “Goby” were probably the high point overall.
Dreaming of Revenge is the next logical step, and as a result contains few if any mistakes of arrangement. Though it’s hard to understand King’s ongoing enthusiasm for the lap steel, in general she has certainly earned the right to more expansive instrumentation and all the overdubs she can eat, and there’s really no sane argument against what happens when she gets herself into the same room as a good drummer. She can even occasionally get away with the vocals and pop song formats as long as she pinkie-swears not to start fancying herself a singer-songwriter. Clearly, then, the problem is not that she shouldn’t look for new places to explore.
Rather, it’s that she doesn’t always realize that she still ought to be able to do something compelling when she reaches them and sometimes puts them on wax prematurely. As we learned on the last record, King is not always the most astute singer: “Jessica” was a clunky lesbian love ballad for a former summer camp counselor which sounded as though it were written by a 14-year-old Kaki in the back room of the mess hall and then revived untouched a decade later, and “Yellowcake” even made the Comp 101 mistake of matching the vocal melody note-for-note to the contours of the guitar part. That pattern continues here, as on a good day, the vocal tunes might come across as mediocre. The verses from lead single “Pull Me Out Alive” are particularly heinous, cramming a forced iambic meter with words and phrases that don’t even come close to fitting properly.
There’s a certain pretension to constantly tending to Serious Artistic Goals, and a broader view of King’s last few records reveal that hers are really threatening to get in the way. She’s simply not as ready for rock operas and orchestral accompaniment as she might like to think. It almost feels like she may be starting to forget why everybody loved her in the first place, and another unaccompanied record would probably do her a lot of good.
In trying so desperately to diversify her artistic portfolio, King may be growing up too quickly, like a pre-teen wearing shorts with “JUICY” printed across the ass. Along the way, she might end up robbing her undiscovered audiences of the chance to watch her evolve — and worse yet, robbing herself of the chance to do it a little more naturally. Every record thus far has contained a handful of songs demonstrating her continued development as a composer, and more often than not, they’re the ones where just cuts loose like she did five years ago, not those in which she makes a deliberate grab for some contrived new musical hat.
But at the very least, her awareness of such issues bodes well for her ability to age gracefully, no matter how awkward puberty might get for the time being. While Dreaming of Revenge is a frustrating Swiss cheese in execution, its strongest passages still indicate that King might yet grow into one of the most intriguing instrumental musicians of her generation — and more importantly, that she doesn’t need to keep trying so damn hard to do it. It’s a shame she seems to be so terrified by that possibility.