“Junior,” Kaki King’s fifth studio recording, is the perfect spring CD.
It’s all raw energy and unrestrained guitar melodies. The tracks are melancholy and sunny by turns, just like the Eugene spring weather.
King, who got her start playing in subways, has never been overly polished, but her vocals have never been more honest and gritty than they are in “Junior,” released April 13 by Rounder Records.
“The Betrayer,” the first song on “Junior,” is about espionage and becoming someone else. King, who has a serious interest in espionage, breathes a tense excitement into the song.
In “Dreaming of Revenge,” her last album released in 2008, and in “Junior,” King proves her ability to become different characters in her songs, and nowhere is this more evident than in “The Betrayer.” Even the lyrics speak to King’s chameleon status — “Again I’ve become someone else, someone new” — and her need to get out — “running on rooftops now, the great escape.”
King has a special fondness for “edgy” song titles, which might more accurately be called unpleasant. “Spit It Back In My Mouth” is the dirtiest title on the album, but it happens to be one of the best songs despite the not-so-subtle double meaning. King’s voice sounds innocent and ageless as she sings “This love is real, don’t fight it down. Just learn to dance and enjoy it,” over and over against a light drumbeat and fast, high-pitched guitar notes.
However, “My Nerves That Committed Suicide,” deserves its name. It’s appropriately titled because the violin notes throughout the track are grating. The song made me feel nervous and uneasy, and not in a good way. Here King takes that trademark energy a little too far by making this song downright hard to listen to. The mournful downbeat harmony of “My Nerves That Committed Suicide” isn’t bad and it might have been a solid track if the harmony had been paired with a brighter guitar or drum melody instead of those absurd violins.
All of the album’s songs are charged with a restless youthful exuberance, barely kept in check by a vague sense of danger. This is best exemplified in “Communist Friends,” a guitar-heavy rocker where King pleads, “Where are you when I need you?” The song is relatively upbeat, but King sounds desperate, as if her world is closing in on her and she can’t find her friends.
And as far as I can tell, the song has absolutely nothing to do with communism.
My favorite song on the album, “Everything Has An End, Even Sadness,” doesn’t have lyrics. I tend to lose patience with instrumental songs, but I was mesmerized by the sounds of this song, at once both sweet and bitter. The long, low guitar strums are followed by what sounds like the cries of seagulls. It’s a moving-on song; a song about leaving the beach, or leaving your first love and it communicates powerful emotion without a single word.
King is unusual in that she is both a talented vocalist and a formidable guitar player. She strums expertly throughout the CD, the guitar pieces always a perfect match to her lyrics. Guitar sets the tone of almost every track on the album, from the mellow yet longing notes on “Sunnyside” to the frantic, Technicolor sound of “Dead Head.”
“I’ve Enjoyed As Much As I Can Stand,” not surprisingly the last track on the album, is the only song to use a heavy drumbeat. The same four notes repeat throughout the song, creating an eerie tone that is augmented by King’s sparse use of vocals.
“Junior” is characterized not by a particular song or sound but by King’s ability to be everything at once: cruel spy, crooning young innocent, abandoned lover.
Producer Malcolm Burn gave her room to play on this album, and it paid off. Whether King is singing about spying, oral sex, or simply loneliness, her honesty and unbridled feistiness make her completely believable.