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 association...um...she 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.