No Longer the Acoustic King

Solo artist Kaki King takes up with a band.

Kaki King The Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 17, $15, 216-383-1124
Kaki King: She plays guitar and spins a good yarn.
Kaki King: She plays guitar and spins a good yarn.
"I don't really talk about influences anymore," says Kaki King from her tour bus in Seattle, where she's riding to an in-store performance. King's recalcitrance is understandable, even warranted: For her first two albums, she was seen either as the cute girl with the pierced lip and the ferocious one-trick chops or as the cute girl who got famous imitating the outlandish guitar techniques of old white guys.

In the storm of interviews following King's 2003 debut, Everybody Loves You, King admitted that her chops were those of a Preston Reed acolyte. Every article written thereafter about King cited Reed, a solo acoustic-guitar wizard who literally restyled how the guitar was played -- arching his left hand over the instrument's neck to fret and simultaneously tap bass notes from low strings. She's been trying to play her way out of that pigeonhole ever since.

"It's really frightening, honestly. If I say one thing I listen to, then it becomes this avalanche," King says. "I really do listen to everything."

King bristles at the idea of being a young acoustic-guitar pioneer, even as she's begun to make a name and living from it. (And even as the market for solo guitarists hits hipster-vogue heights: Two John Fahey tributes have emerged in the last year, featuring appearances by Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo and indiedom heir Sufjan Stevens.) For King, it was a question of defining herself and her music before it became defined for her.

"People said that I played pretty music, but that I was a really great guitar player. I was starting to talk about myself the way other people would talk about me," she says. "I wasn't excited about making a solo guitar record again -- wasn't feeling it. I knew something would have to be different. I don't have to be this great guitar player, so that's what I did."

She had never set out to be a guitar hero. King spent her years at New York University playing bass and drums in pop bands. She was a credited musician in Broadway productions of the Blue Man Group (she played "stick," according to Playbill). Guitar became her primary instrument only after graduation, almost of necessity, when King started playing for change in subway terminals. She played there alone, for hours on end, tinkering with new progressions and modified tunings.

Somewhere in those tunnels, Reed's innovations -- slapping the guitar's body for percussion, building a bed of natural harmonics, playing bass lines and melodic leads with one hand -- took hold. Even though King borrowed Reed's technique for only a portion of her repertoire, that's what stuck -- for people waiting by the tracks as well as journalists writing about her music. Still, King refuses to feel constrained by the way others see her.

"You have a publicist and these people writing bios and using names, and it's their job to help you sell records," she says. "But it's not my job to sell anything. I just want to play music."

Intent on expanding her horizons, for her third album, . . . Until We Felt Red, King recruited John McEntire, drummer for Tortoise, the Sea & Cake, and Gastr del Sol, as well as producer of such bands as Stereolab, Teenage Fanclub, and Richard Buckner.

King stepped into the studio, no strings attached: She had bailed on Epic Records, the major that released her second album, Legs to Make Us Longer, and paid for the sessions herself.

"I wasn't worried that it had to be done in a certain way. I didn't even have a label -- or plans at all, at that point," says King, who sounds more content talking about McEntire and their time in the studio than anything else. "It was really just like 'Let's get some good sounds and make some music.'"

That's exactly what happened: King sings extensively on the record, and her voice counts for more than texture. The lithe vocal melody on opener "Yellowcake" hovers in a mist of understated, percussive playing (created with the butt of the palm, not the body of the guitar), peerless finger-picking, and lap-steel moans. King's electric-guitar grind -- murky, pensive, threatening -- on "These Are the Armies of the Tyrannized" breaks across the bulkhead of charging drums, while her crisp chord inversions on "Soft Shoulder" would make most jazz students writhe with envy.

At points, . . . Until We Felt Red sounds like a dilettante affair, as though King stepped too far, too fast, for the sake of critical distance: "Jessica" is a chord-and-arpeggio pop song, like a Cocteau Twins demo afraid to stand out. The album closer, "Gay Sons of Lesbian Mothers," is all airy steel-guitar drift and simplistic electronic programming. It sounds, ultimately, like a past-due token made obsolete by several of McEntire's collaborators and Thrill Jockey labelmates.

Still, it's promising to see King wrestle her way out of any artificial box, especially when most of the disc is overwhelming and gorgeous. She's now touring with a trio, actively working on reading other musicians and being able to improvise around her own tightly structured work.

"They're really top-notch musicians, and I'm sure it's been a lot more work for me than them," says King, who claims that music is the only part of her life that she approaches with instinct, not logic. "I've been doing music for a while, so it's not something I haven't done before . . . But the challenge was put on me to be playing in an environment that I haven't played in for years."

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