Kaki King’s fingers and brain are among the gods’ little gifts to the world. Her voice, not so much. Not that it’s unappealing—when she croons the bad-break-up lyrics to “Life Being What It Is” from her new album Dreaming of Revenge, with her thin everygirl pipes tippy-toeing near the top of their range, it's affecting enough that you wanna give her a shoulder squeeze. But then her note-bending guitar snake-charms through the song’s bridge, giving a glimpse of her true voice: as fine a six-string instrumentalist as there is working in pop music today. And in that superlative lies the proverbial rub.
Pop music—you know, songs—is, generally, a vocal genre. King has sung (or made little breathy mouth sounds at least) on each of her four studio albums to date, but it’s the songs without words that make up most of her output that really stick with you. She is one of those rare virtuosos who seems to duck technique-for-technique’s-sake in favor of dazzling you with a clean-lined melody, or a composition with an emotional beginning, middle, and end. “Life Being What It Is” and Dreaming’s equally dry-eyed “Saving Days in a Frozen Head” and “2 O’Clock” are perhaps her finest songs-with-words to date, and feature her most outgoing, confident vocals, but they are merely decent back pages from almost any singer/songwriter compared to the jittery slow-burn full-band wallop of “Montreal” or the string-section-driven build of “Open Mouth” and “Can Anyone Who Has Heard This Music Really Be a Bad Person?”
Maybe King simply has more to say than her guitar will let her at this point, or maybe she’s just tired of the gee-whiz hot-picker ghetto, which doesn’t suit her anyway. Dreaming seems unlikely to be her breakout vehicle, but the good news is that it’s her most melodic album to date, and if it lacks some of the intensity of the best instrumental pieces on her 2004 cup of coffee with the majors, Legs to Make Us Longer, it also lacks the feeble vocal tracks.