EMOTIONS IN MOTION Kaki King

The guitar whiz infuses beauty and emotion into her songs-lyrics
optional.

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

One thing Kaki King doesn’t want is to be known only as a competent-even
sublimely talented-female guitar player. She, like cartoonish dervish Marnie
Stern, wants to be known for her music in general; not just the intermittent
burst of notes part, but the rhythm-melody-harmony-lyrics parcel. The two women
are of the rare breed that can justifiably make this plea-each has crafted an
original sound around their likewise unique playing styles, both of which,
incidentally, involve the guitar hero’s built-for-speed technique: tapping, as
made famous by Eddie Van Halen.

 

But EVH these ladies are not. Though Stern’s thunderous, sometimes wacky,
guitar antics put her in a league of extraordinarily metal-esque gentlemen like
Les Claypool and Buckethead, she’s more an indie rock singer-songwriter. King’s
another story. While there are moments when she taps, pops-and-chokes, or
scuttles her fingers across the strings like a methamphetamine-addled
tarantula, that’s not the first thing you notice. That would be her heady,
hypnotic, harmony-laden songs.

 

“Crazy technique,” says King, “can only take you so far
emotionally. And I tend to write emotional songs.”

 

Even when, on her new album Dreaming of Revenge (Velour), King
starts with an instrumental tune that fully showcases her guitar acumen-but
does not belabor the point, she triggers an emotional reaction. The jazzy
trance-inducing guitar on “Bone Chaos in the Castle” forces 2-1/2
minutes of introspection by ostensibly putting the listener in a cavernous
space to sort out the clutter. This is better defined when “Bone…”
fades into “Life Being What It Is,” a tale of abandonment (“You
put a note in my pocket/said “Be good to yourself”/and that was
all”) where King dials down the guitar to allow the story in the song to
take the lead.

 

Another instro, “Sad American,” follows, painting an ethereal,
tribal dream with a Cure-ish guitar sound that gives way to “Pull Me Out
Alive,” an alternately chugging-dreamy, new wave/shoegaze tune that
bemoans the violence and chaos in the world and requests rescue.

 

Lest you sense a pattern here, only four of the eleven songs on Revenge have vocals. King actually started out all-instro, only incorporating vocals
and other instruments to develop her atmospheric, lyrical, singer-songwriterly
sound on Revenge‘s predecessor, 2006’s …Until We Felt Red.
Her early albums took an earthy Leo Kottke-centric approach, but still resonated
with emotion and an implicit message, sometimes hinted at in the title (read
between the lines on “Happy As A Dead Pig In The Sunshine”) and
always elaborated upon by her expressive, vibrant guitar playing.

 

“Even though I’ve pushed myself as a guitar player,” she says,
“I don’t think I’ve ever written a song without some sort of feeling
involved in it. Technique, by itself, is pretty much devoid of feeling
and emotion.”

 

When King plays guitar, it’s colored by the inflection of her soul, the emotion
she wants to transmit. Many guitarists skate by, simply accenting notes, but a
great guitarist finds a way to go beyond simple emphasis. “I’ve listened
to a lot of guitar players in my life, and a lot of drummers and
bassists,” says King. “They’re really talented, and it totally gets
my technical rocks off to go and listen to some young Berklee grad who’s a
monster on the drum set, but if the musically doesn’t have emotional content it
doesn’t really splash with me.”

 

So on “So Much For So Little,” King employs a robotic, alienated
strum/chop a la Alex Lifeson from Rush over wet, watery chords and bare
fingerpicked arpeggios, distorted power chords and more arpeggios laden with
spooky harmonics. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all fairly simple: so much,
for so little. And from there, one can draw his own conclusions about the
significance of the song. It could be about wanting more for less, or realizing
you’re more a taker than a giver.

 

Either way, it works. And King is a great guitarist. Mind you, that’s not
spitting in her face, calling her what she’s asked not to be called. What she
told Blast Magazine earlier this year was she didn’t want to be known
only as a “good female guitarist.” She’s fine being
appreciated for her fretboard wizardry so long as you get what she’s trying to
do. Which is: “to infuse something beautiful into what I do.”

 

 

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