Housecleaning, go! New Zealand songstress Kimbra is featured on a hit single titled “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye. You have heard it. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Kimbra, whose last name is disappointingly Johnson, has made a ripple for herself before even releasing a debut album (which works out to mixed results for some of us). Singles “Settle Down,” “Cameo Lover” and “Good Intent” have been wafting through the Internet for a while now, and a collaboration with Mark Foster (of Foster the People) and A-Trak, “Warrior,” has been peddling designer canvas shoes for a bit now. Expectations were inevitably high with such widespread marketing (because if marketing can do anything, it’s raise expectations).
Fear not. Ms. Johnson delivered with Vows.
Kimbra is not an artist light on quirk, and indeed, her style is similar to a sonic Megazord of Bjork, Amy Winehouse, St. Vincent and Santigold. She’s not quite pop and she’s not quite jazz, and alternative doesn’t really mean anything anyway. To possess such a diverse array of sensibilities is always a listener’s delight, and it is a surefire guarantee that the artist will not commit the cardinal sin of music, Being Boring (or in other words, being Bright Eyes).
Judging only from the album’s early singles, Kimbra doesn’t cotton to boring. “Settle Down” is both inventive and classic, strutting its stuff with handclaps and vocal loops, its lyrics straight out of a Billie Holliday collection. It’s the perfect opener, because it conveys Kimbra’s hard-to-pin down style perfectly. Saying that she sounds like a classic jazz singer gives the wrong impression — she’s clearly a modern alt-pop artist. To hear Kimbra’s “Settle Down,” though, is to experience a world in which disco never happened. Kimbra, on this cornerstone track, is the perfect middleground between Lykke Li and Nina Simone.
“Cameo Lover” is a twinkling and vaguely Europop tale of an inattentive lover. It’s a confection of the highest order, something right at home in the world of Don Draper, but more likely to gain the interest of Megan Draper (or maybe even Sally). No jazz here: Kimbra channels the Supremes throughout, tambourine in hand. If anything, the lyrics, with Kimbra imploring her apathetic beau (“Every day’s like talking in your sleep”) to “open up your heart,” complement the sixties-borrowing sound. Instead of pulling a Kelly Clarkson and dumping the dude, the song’s heroine is acting out a Phil Spector lyrical plot (with less murder).
On the other hand: “Good Intent.” Reader, a sexier song does not exist. Speaking of Drapers, I demand this song appear in a Mad Men promo yesterday. It is slinky as heck. I think Beelzebub himself is plucking the strings on that upright bass. Kimbra will brook no tomfoolery from her lout on this track: “It’s not enough to say it’s not what’s in your heart/You’ve tainted every moment ’til death do we part.” With muted trumpet bursts and a furtive xylophone, “Good Intent” is one of the most confident songs of the year.
Vows makes good with quieter moments as well, like the melancholy and mysterious “Plain Gold Ring” (which is a phenomenal live recording, to boot) and the haunting “Old Flame.” When Kimbra changes it up, she still comes out on top. “Come Into My Head” dips its toes in the Kanye West School of Soul-Inspired Hip-Hop Beats to fun effect, while “The Build Up” contains a sliver of Sigur Ros’ majesty and a chunk of Imogen Heap’s ethereal wail.
But do yourself a favor and snag the deluxe version of Vows, because you deserve to hear “Warrior” for the rest of your life. It has joined this reviewer’s list of Favorite Songs of 2012, along with the anthemic “Some Nights” by fun. I don’t care if it’s a promotional track for Converse. Get your skepticism of capitalism away from me. It’s pulse-pounding and dynamic, a true musical thrillride that you will stain itself onto your brain. Or make you buy a pair of shoes, whichever comes first.
Kimbra knows what she’s doing, and Vows is like a doctoral seminar on how to synthesize a unique sound. Class is in session.
(1) “Settle Down”
(3) “Cameo Lover”
(6) “Good Intent”
(12) “The Build Up”