Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Easy Eye Sound/Fantasy

Guitarist Marcus King Finds His Voice on ‘El Dorado’

Marcus King has a raw ache in his throat that makes him sound as if he's coarsely whispering the words. Even when he's singing about a "Young Man's Dream", King's vocals suggest the experience of age.

El Dorado
Marcus King
17 January 2020

South Carolina native Marcus King enjoys a reputation as a young, hotshot guitarist. As the leader of the Marcus King Band, the 23-year-old phenom has wowed live audiences with his rockin’ Southern blues power and released three heralded discs full of hot licks. Now King is going it alone, although not all by himself. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys produced King’s debut album at his Easy Eye Studio in Nashville with veteran keyboardist Bobby Wood, drummer Gene Chrisman, and bassist Dave Roe. The result suggests King is much more than just a string wizard. He has written (co-written) a lively batch of songs about his experiences and observations and infused them with an enthused spirit of soulful wonderment. It sounds like he’s having fun, even when life hurts because feeling bad is still better than no having no feelings at all.

Auerbach has said that while he was familiar with King’s guitar playing chops, it was the South Carolinian’s voice that attracted him to this project. King has a raw ache in his throat that makes him sound as if he’s coarsely whispering the words. Even when he’s singing about a “Young Man’s Dream”, King’s vocals suggest the experience of age. Think of early Rod Stewart vis a vis “Gasoline Alley” as an equivalent comparison. One can easily understand Auerbach’s fascination with King’s singing.

But saying one treasures King’s crooning over his axe-wielding is reminiscent of that old Alberto Vargas Playboy cartoon about a lecher drooling over a woman’s ample bosom saying that he’s really just a leg man. Sure, who doesn’t appreciate a great pair of gams, but King is one of the greatest rock/blues guitar players of today. The fact that he has an interesting voice is a plus, but his virtuoso instrumental talent is what’s really special about him.

King does play up a storm on several tracks. Consider the heavy blues riffs that open “The Well” that are hard enough to pound nails before King starts lamenting the burdens of rural life. He takes a wailing rock solo midway to express the effort it takes to conquer one’s circumstances, and then after a short continuance launches into an instrumental coda to wrap up.

Other songs, most notably the poignant “Wildflowers & Wine”, focus on King’s vocals (and that of a background choir of female singers). Auerbach’s production purposely gives the track a nostalgic Stax-lite vibe with lyrics about “old scratchy records”. The bulk of the other material, such as “Sweet Mariona”, “Break”, and “No Pain” are also evocative of past Southern soul from a previous era.

Other cuts such as the haunting “One Day She’s Here” and the gospel-infused “Beautiful Stranger” shine behind the more equitable mix of King’s playing and singing. He doesn’t engage in pyrotechnics but allows his fingers to carry the rhythms and forward the melody with the help of his fellow band members. And when he does allow his digits to fly on “Too Much Whiskey”, King captures the excitement of living on the edge, with the addition of a verbal nod to Willie Nelson and a harmonica homage to Mickey Raphael.

Listeners in search of guitar gold would find this more on King’s records with his band than on his solo effort El Dorado. Besides, this album takes its name from the Cadillac automobile of that name rather than the legendary city of myth. There is a sense of motion to the record as a whole, which would make it a good driving companion. King may be looking in the rear-view mirror as he motorizes, but this record reveals the young man is moving forward in new ways.

RATING 7 / 10