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Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006 12:26 am

She's special, not 'cause she's a she

Guitarist Kaki King goes for the full-band sound

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Kaki King...Until We Felt Red(Velour Music)

Guitar dorks are guys mostly, weird guys with ickily long fingernails who stink of cannabis and complicated tablatures. If they’re not droning on about the awesome tuning that they just discovered, they’re arguing about stupid stuff that no one else cares about, such as whether a particular mode is Dorian or Mixolydian or the exact degree to which Robbie Basho was better than Leo Kottke and Django Reinhardt was better than either. Kaki King isn’t that kind of guitar dork. For starters, she’s a woman, which in an ideal world wouldn’t bear mentioning but in ours, alas, does. More unusual than that missing Y chromosome, though, is the fact that she isn’t satisfied being a mere virtuosa, one of those razzle-dazzle types whose fleet fingers make the dudes go whoa. At 26, the former subway busker seems less interested in showcasing her hott lixx and more interested in developing her sonic arsenal. After expanding her template beyond the solo acoustic guitar of her debut, Everybody Loves You, to include additional instrumentation on the follow-up, Legs to Make Us Longer, King is now going for the full-band sound.

Produced by post-rock bigwig John McEntire (Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Stereolab), who is also credited with “drums and things,” . . . Until We Felt Red augments King’s trademark acoustic with lap-steel and electric guitars, keyboards, horns, funny loops, unpronounceable exotica, and, perhaps most surprising of all, her own voice, a sweet, slightly shaky soprano. When King sings, she sounds a bit unsure of herself; in contrast to her magisterial fretwork, the effect is disarmingly girlish. Of the tracks with vocals, “Jessica,” a dreamy, droning pop song that recalls My Bloody Valentine, is an unlikely triumph. Consisting of a few distortion-smeared guitar chords and a smattering of vibes, it boasts absolutely nothing that will wow the technique geeks, and the scintillant buzz is all the more intoxicating for it.

Instrumentals such as “Ahuvati,” “First Brain,” and “Goby” amply display King’s prodigious skill on her primary instrument, be it in the form of intricate finger-picking, percussive plucking, languid slide, or tangy harmonics, yet the album never devolves into aimless wankery. As demonstrated on the best cut, the three-part, eight-minute suite “You Don’t Have to Be Afraid,” King’s foremost concern is the composition itself, and, when it comes to knowing how best to serve it, her instincts are uncanny. More than her sex or her relative youth, it’s her discretion that makes her extraordinary. It’s what separates the theoreticians from the innovators, the Yngwie Malmsteens from the John Faheys, the noodlers from the visionaries

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On Zeno Beach, their first studio album in 25 years, Aussie protopunks Radio Birdman rip through 13 rock-’em-sock-’em new songs that sound as essential as anything from their scant but hugely influential back catalog. Featuring four of the six original members, including singer Rob Younger and guitarist Deniz Tek, the newest iteration of the band serves up a potent cocktail of garage, surf music, and art rock that’s every bit as thrilling today as it was in 1974, when the Birdmen first unleashed their sonic fury on an unsuspecting Sydney and cleared the way for likeminded groups such as the Saints. (We won’t blame them for Silverchair or Jet.) Radio Birdman isn’t tarting itself up with trendy new-millennium touches — no wacky samples, glitchy textures, or, heaven forfend, dancehall riddims — but so what? With the serrated meta-anthem “We’ve Come So Far (To Be Here Today),” the moody diptych “Heyday,” and the sly Bo Diddley stomper “Hungry Cannibals,” the Birdmen prove that they’re more than pioneers; they’re survivors.

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