September 27, 2011

Album Review: Kimbra - Vows

A friend of mine posted a video by Kiwi songstress Kimbra on facebook a month or two ago and after forgetting about her another friend recently sent another song to me. For some reason my curiosity was really piqued and I dove deep into the Youtubes to find some more of her music. Soon this unique woman's melodies and arrangements (not to mention dance moves) were crammed so deep into my brain that I couldn't resist grabbing as much of her music as possible. Unfortunately due international recording contracts, this is extremely difficult. But no one gets between this man and his musical obsessions. Behold, a review of Kimbra's American-unreleased Vows beneath the cut.

Kimbra, a relatively unknown talent in our part of the world, is already massively popular in Australia and New Zealand. Her biggest US push to date has come in the form of the above video for "Settle Down", the first track off of her recently released major-label debut Vows. The single received the Perez Hilton bump when the blogger featured the song along with some extravagant and less-than intelligent gushing ("She's from New Zealand and she's effing rad!!!!!"). As the internet blogging community often does with musicians, the support was fairly brief and superficial (unlike my support which involves this blog post and more musically informed gushing about Kimbra please marry me now). 

I'm going to go ahead and disagree with Mr. Hilton's assertion that Kimbra is a combination Nina Simone, Florence and the Machine, and Bjork. I feel like she picks up the first association by her cover of a Nina Simone song "Gold Ring". The association with Fleetwood Mac soulmates Florence and the Machine comes from Americans thinking all foreigners sound alike and the Bjork has interesting arrangements? I do agree that if you like those artists you will like Kimbra, but I think it sells the Kiwi short to say that she is those artists combined into one.

Kimbra brings an incredible synthesis of musical styles into her album that may not receive American radio-play (except for the above single which may provide glorious reprieve from Adele's "Rolling in the Deep", and the second track "Cameo Lover" which I'll feature later) is a tight little (but sonically giant) album that provides formidable melodies and hooks while not faltering in the lyrics department.

The debut single and first track on the album (see above video) "Settle Down" is an infectious song (and a great video) about expectations for relationships from a female point of view. What I love about the song and lyrics is an ambiguity about the singer's own expectations of love. It is unclear whether the singer supports or refutes the ideas present in the song. It is obvious that the character is infatuated with the idea of marriage and the safety of a long-term relationship, but as a listener we are allowed to form our own judgments.

I am obsessed with the arrangement of this song (and many of the songs on the album). Most of the tracks on Vows make use of Kimbra's vocal flexibility to provide orchestras of scat-singing, vocal-percussion, growls, moans, and whines. In a musical world where using unique instruments has become a necessity to set one's sound apart from the pack, Kimbra and her album's producers pull out all of the stops. In addition to the aforementioned vocal sound-designs, pianos are used intelligently for timbral variety (listen in "Settle Down" to the eighth-note chords on the bridge) and for unique effects, such as the prepared piano intro to the beautiful "The Build Up" a-la John Cage. The album utilizes brass, strings, low squawky reed instruments, and everything in between. The genius is that each song contains these instruments in strategic places, never content to dwell on any one sound for too long. This allows each section of each song to have its own flavor and makes repeat listening an enjoyable necessity, an aspect missing on the last album I reviewed.

I can't say enough about the production of this album. The engineers behind this album (really the unsung heroes, although Kimbra herself receives production credits on the album) have crafted a piece of art. Vocals are mixed in surprising ways, there is clarity while still maintaining thick textures, and the colors pop out of this album in ways I haven't heard before from a pop-album.

Oh yeah, there are songs on this album too. Great songs. 

Kimbra is at her best in two modes. The first is present in the two songs above which are her delectable pop-tunes that combine indie-rock sensibilities with the nu-motown sound and gloss it all over with a sheen of hip-hop production and dance know-how. The above song "Cameo Lover" is a superb example of this synthesis. From the first beats you would expect the song to be a straight-forward club hit in the vein of Katy Perry, however the introduction of the celeste (or tiny xylophone, not sure) partway through the opening verse belies the ultimate destination of throwback style big-band-backed choruses. This is the genius of these songs, they begin as one thing, and then by virtue of the production and arrangements the songs swell and become something entirely different. Unfortunately the above song contains one of the albums few low-points. The bridge contains some notes painfully out of Kimbra's prime vocal range which become strident. The point is nitpicky though, and nearly everything about this song makes me yearn for more songwriters like her. Other tracks that show off Kimbra's dance-hit prowess and ability to write timeless songs are her serpentine jazzy  "Good Intent", and the above mentioned "Settle Down".

Kimbra's other extreme are her downtempo crooners which actually make up the largest portion of Vows. I would love an entire album of make-out songs by Kimbra. Her voice is really on display on songs like "Withdraw" which features some of the most gut-wrenching lyrics and orchestral swells in the album, "Old Flame" which reminds me of the best ballades of the 80s and 90s, (including one of my favorite songs of all time by one Donna Lewis) and the incredible "Wandering Limbs". Please watch the video below and you'll understand what I'm talking about. And this is live. 

There is only one song that I can't say I enjoy. Halfway through Vows is a funky song called "Call Me". Kimbra, while soulful (and I really mean it, she's got a hell of a lot of soul) is not a rapper, nor is she going to be featured on hip-hop records anytime soon. With a backing track that would fit Mariah Carey well, or hip-hop artists like Dessa or Maria Isa, this song is the only one that doesn't fit and keeps the album from being absolute perfection. The song is not unique in lyrics nor is it interesting musically. Listen to it once and if you don't like it ignore it, skip it, don't let it alter your view of the album, it takes very few calories to push the next button.

Other songs on the album that are worth mention are "Limbo" which sounds like a tape-splicing experiment gone funky. The song is mesmerizing and will keep you coming back. The final track "The Build Up" I've already mentioned, but it deserves a second look. This track is the closest Kimbra comes to Bjork, both in her use of unorthodox instruments (prepared piano) but also her straight-tone back-up singing that smacks of Bjork's masterpiece album Medulla. The lyrics are less abstract than Bjork though and remind me more strongly of Nellie McKay. The track is beautiful though. I mean it is really stunning. Strings, vocals, pads and sounds of unknown origins weave in and out of a sonic quilt that warms and chills simultaneously. 

In the end though I'm trying to define an album that wrestles strongly against definition. I do not think the album is groundbreaking, meaning it's not a game-changer like Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster was. This album will not inspire multitudes of female artists to copy and tweak her sound, but it is inspirational on an individual level. As a music fan I appreciate the album as an aurally pleasing experience. As a musician I love the album for its writing, engorged arrangements and production. As a person I appreciate Kimbra's attention to intimacy.

The album is not out yet in America and it's either expensive to buy online or just plain impossible, and that's a real tragedy. I haven't been able to find a release date either, but hopefully Warner Bros. will wise up pretty soon and release the thing here. Even though I managed to cobble together my own copy I really do intend to buy it when it becomes available and you should too. Buy it for its writing, buy it for Kimbra's voice, and buy it to prove that Americans can listen to intelligent well made music.


  1. But Americans CAN'T listen to intelligent music! Have you listened to the crap Kat and I listen to? That said I do love Kimbra...I wish her music was more available.

  2. I agree with you almost entirely, and I am enthralled that there are more Americans outside of my family and my close friends who love her music. But I have an almost opposite view of the track "Call Me." Its production is a bit too busy and complex for any mainstream hip-hop artists today, and though I adore Mariah, her style isn't anywhere near that funky nor as jazzy. Her production centers almost entirely around her enormous voice, so things have always been a bit sparse. Kimbra, on the other hand, knows her voice is small, strange, yet beautiful, layers it endlessly, and arranges the accompaniment with the co-producers hired to separate herself from any of the other female artists her age out there today who seem almost delusional in their vocal capabilities. Kimbra's vocal stacking is at her best on this track; she creates chords with her voice I don't think many others could even try to attempt without an uproar of laughter on my part. The lyrics seem a bit trite on the first listen, but be sure to take notice of the small elements of sarcasm within each sentence. There's almost an underlying meaning behind it all, as if she's ridiculing the silly false promises people make in order to charm one another. "Make you mine forever, all the money I could spend." Her morals are almost the opposite in her other songs' lyrics, so one can only assume that she knew how stupid is sounds to try to buy someone's love and make an oath after only knowing them for a small amount of time.

    I personally find that even though "The Build Up" and "Two-Way Street" are both very pretty, they are a bit bland and predictable. It's oddly a bit ironic (I'm sorry I used that word. I've grown to hate it. I'm sorry. I take it back.) "The Build Up" has that title when its progression and melody are possibly the most repetitive on the record and never really "Build Up" to anything as interesting as the other pieces. I know you didn't really mention "Two-Way Street," but I felt as though it didn't even sound like ever-present style throughout the rest of the rest of the record. It also irritated me that these two stayed on the American re-release, whilst "Limbo," "Withdraw," "Call Me," and "Wandering Limbs" were omitted in favor of four new ones. I do have a large admiration for "Come Into My Head," "Sally I Can See You," and "Posse," and I am glad America is able to enjoy them. But "Home" and the Mark Foster and A-Trak produced "Warrior" don't really reflect the true sound of her voice and style of writing.

    On a side note, I am barely offended that you hold Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster in higher regard than this album. Sure, Gaga is most certainly talented, but Lord knows that her music is (for the most part) meaningless fluff. They're mainly just the same four-chords pop music has been using since before I was born, and her voice is put through so many digital filters one wouldn't know the difference between her and Microsoft Sam. I pray that her records won't influence an entire generation for years to come. I, as a young musician, am most certainly letting Kimbra influence me as much as possible despite me finding out about her music less than a year ago. This was the kind of music I wanted to make since I was a wee tot, but I just couldn't get it out of me. I nearly cried the first time I heard "Cameo Lover," "Good Intent," and "Call Me," for they let me know I was not alone and that I didn't have to resort to the brilliance of Yellowjackets, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, and Radiohead. New artists are born every day, and most make music like Gaga has, just as she makes music identical to the ones before her. Kimbra is doing what the real legends started out doing: creating a new sound while remaining her integrity. That's the real difference.