Kaki KingDreaming of Revenge(Velour)6.5
Goes well with: Leo Kottke, movie soundtracks, ball gags
It's tough not to like a guitar-shredding badass who cut her teeth busking in New York subways and can outpick the most calloused-finger virtuosos in the business. It's especially tough when said badass is a petite, baby-faced chick with a lip ring and a permanent scowl.
Kaki King's ability to coax virtual symphonies from a six-string and a pair of quick-moving hands earned her cred with the likes of Eddie Vedder (with whom she composed music for Into the Wild) and her chops are even more impressive on this mostly instrumental disc (her fourth). Layering guitar tracks in textures ranging from dreamy slide washes to math-rock arpeggios to straight-up percussion, King fills out the soundscapes with strings, making for a rather pleasant, chilled-out soundtrack to a rainy afternoon. That is, until she starts to sing.
King's previous adventures in singing have been limited to a single, tentative track on her stellar sophomore record, Legs to Make Us Longer, and some timid cooing on the follow-up, Until We Felt Red. Here, King is misguidedly bolstered with the confidence to un-bury her vocals on four tracks, boldly articulating amateurish melodies and uninspired lyrics (“There's no need to be so terrible when you know I will do anything for you”).
At their best, these non-instrumentals are tolerable. At their worst, as on the almost unlistenable “2 O'Clock,” King utters her notes with a kind of grade-school-recital precision that nearly spoils what is otherwise a pretty good record. —Maya Kroth
HymnsTravel in Herds(Blackland Records)7.5
Goes well with: Tom Petty, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, six-packs of Lone Star
With Travel in Herds, Hymns create a record that's truly transcontinental. Fronted by North Carolina natives Brian Harding and Jason Roberts and joined by Texans Tony Kent and Matt Shaw, Travel in Herds is a record channeling the depths of American music.
It's hard to deny the Dylan-esque drawl of frontman Brian Harding in songs like “NYC Nervous Breakdown,” a stomping, repetitive folk-rocker that kicks off the record. The song's biting and bright guitar tone and minor progressions call to mind British folk icons like Billy Bragg as much as Americana icons like Dylan or Tom Petty. But to say that this robs Hymns of any ingenuity of their own would be grossly unfair; the songs are well-structured and the musicianship is largely superb.
But that isn't the case on tracks like “Blame it on the Mountains,” a song that pays homage to Petty to the extent that it sounds like a cover of his classic “I Won't Back Down.” Another low point is the truncated track “LA, Or Babette Sange,” which fades out in the middle of the last verse. Ultimately, Travel in Herds offers a refreshing glimpse of a band rooted in the sound of the '70s without always sounding like a cheap imitation. —Richie Lauridsen
Nine Inch NailsGhosts I-IV(Self-release)9.1
Goes well with: Aphex Twin, M83, Air, sweet herb
Trent Reznor wants to crack open your skull and mess around with the insides. And you only have to pay him a minimal fee to do it. Radiohead's experiment with In Rainbows is finally seeing a ripple effect with another major artist. NIN recently released the first nine songs of Ghosts I-IV online for free. Those who want all four parts can download the epic 36-track album from Amazon.com for $5 (or roughly 14 cents per song). What you get is the result of Reznor simply going into the studio and hammering out track after track with the only restriction being that the album had to be finished within 10 weeks. Ghosts is completely instrumental with no track names (just numbers) and no lyrics. And yet, it's a vibrant musical landscape with low, morose tones (“11 Ghost II”) and the high-octane crunch that harkens back to Reznor's earlier days (“31 Ghost IV”). The physical album will drop April 8 (and come in various forms, similar to In Rainbows), but do yourself a favor and let Reznor mess with your head early.—Eddie Shoebang