KAKI KING JUNIOR (ROUNDER)
Listen to Kaki King's new album and you'll have one thought for sure: If she's this bitter about her girlfriend now, she really must have loved her then. It's been a good season for loser-take-all breakup records (see also: Joanna Newsom), but Junior might be the best.
King is most famous for her unrepentantly virtuosic instrumental guitar music, which mixes Kottke-esque fingerpicking with showy-but-sweet metal tricks—she's one of very few women with a signature guitar model—but over the course of her three most recent albums she's swerved toward indie rock, or something like it. First she just toyed with rock dynamics and added some quiet, tentative singing, but on Junior, she's bringing it all, at gale force.
Within the album's first few lines, King owns up that she may have fucked up, but she's doing her best to beg back the girl she loves. Her efforts are a little more barbed than the typical heartbroken pleas, though: "Good luck finding someone / Who can love you better than I," she sings, trying to insinuate a seed of insecurity. Later she plays the cad: "I wanted to be tangled up in someone long and blonde."
King dissects the relationship-that-was from a constantly shifting place; confessions of guilt and blame ping-pong back and forth. On the album opener, "The Betrayer," she casts herself as the one who killed it: "I had my own life to save," she says, selfish and controlled. But the record closes with the frayed, melancholy "Sunnyside," where King is alone with the relics of domesticity: "Some photographs and a wiener dog . . . all the things you left behind," she sings, lingering on "left behind" so that it's clear she's one of those things.
On "Death Head" a catastrophic brokenness forces a possibly metaphorical emergency-room trip, and King relays hospital dialogue whose details imply a bleak bigger picture: "Christian name? Date of birth? Do you live alone? / Your emergency contact didn't answer." She doesn't just sound upset, she sounds utterly furious, her sinewy guitar driving the anger home. It's sure to be a balm to anyone still wondering who'll fill the void left by Sleater-Kinney's dissolution.
Junior is heavy and relatable, but it won't win back the early fans who bailed when King started to sing—her instrumental recordings made her a favorite with new age types who liked to meditate at her shows. It's not only the first album where King is explicit about her sexuality, it's also her fullest and most powerful record because of the variety and intensity of emotions behind it. Her playing on the instrumental "My Nerves That Committed Suicide" communicates as much as her lyrics do elsewhere: it starts with quiet, acoustic picking overlaid with lap steel, then builds over pounding breaks and erupts into long mournful arcs of distorted electric guitar. King's solos on Junior are easily the most emotionally evocative since J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr was in his prime—wounds transposed into sound with muscle and finesse. It helps that she's got a band to give her bitterness a percussive punch—drummer Jordan Perlson sounds like he might've done time playing hardcore or metal, and his precision serves her nimble technique well.
Most people call it an evolution when an artist goes from pissed-off indie rock to more subdued, contemplative, "mature" material. Junior is a move in the opposite direction, but it's such a confident, put-together record that it deserves to be called an evolution too.