“Great Round Burn”
After an auspicious start as a finger-tapping virtuoso and a transformation to singer-songwriter, guitarist Kaki King has returned to her instrumental roots with Glow, her first vocal-free LP since 2004. It’s much more than a rehash or a collection of melodies; Glow marries the best of her developed songcraft with melodic beauty and multi-layered accents.
The direction may surprise some, seeing as when King last left us, she was lathering her songs in vocal harmonies, catchy choruses, and quirky lyrics. But Glow brings King full circle, back to a method of telling stories with quickly picked melodies, percussive tapping, and calmly strummed chord progressions. What caused this shift? A simple fork in the road.
“I think what helped shape Glow,” King says, “was the sort of ambivalence I was beginning to feel at that time, about if I was going to continue to play guitar for a living.”
To escape that ambivalence, the guitar maven took a 180 while touring in support of Junior, developing and embarking upon the multi-timbre “Traveling Freak Guitar Show” — a band-less tour that featured her with rarities such as a harp guitar, dojo, and guitar/koto hybrid.
“I figured the best way to reignite my love for the guitar and my love for playing was to start these random solo tours,” King says. “It was really just an excuse to get out on the road and force myself to be creative with one guitar at a time.”
What she found were the seedlings that would blossom into her sixth full-length effort. Glow features the virtuosity that listeners loved back on King’s debut in 2003, but it also boasts the talents of the ETHEL string quartet, which hooks listeners from the get-go with the swirling sounds of “Great Round Burn.” King’s multitude of guitars and techniques provide more new sounds too, whether in the Eastern-tinged “Bowen Island” or the finger-picked hammer-on triplets of “The Fire Eater.” At the same time, she counteracts technicality with reservation and balance.
“There’s a sort of subtlety in something like ‘No True Masterpiece Will Ever Be Complete’ or ‘Skimming the Fractured Surface to a Place of Endless Light,’” she notes. “They don’t sound complicated, but the reason is [because] there is a high level of finesse in playing something like that.”
The balance has led to some of King’s best songwriting to date, with works that tell fully built stories. Heartbreaking moments like album closer “Marche Slav” will serve as a winter soundtrack for many, proving that so much can be said without words.
“We looked up at the end of making the album and were like, ‘Oh, there’s no singing,’” she says. “It just didn’t happen. We were open to it. We even discussed a couple things, and it just didn’t go down.”
Will listeners miss King’s haunting vocals? Only time will tell. Though the decision to exclude them on Glow was not premeditated, it almost certainly will be viewed as a huge moment in her storied career.