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Kimbra, ‘Vows’ – Album Review

Kimbra
Warner Bros.

With just a verse, Kimbra Johnson (she prefers the mononym) gained a foothold into superstardom. Her jilted lover cameo on Gotye‘s ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ launched both into pop culture ubiquity — earning them indie cred, pop sales, a Coachella set and a ‘Saturday Night Live’ appearance. Now Kimbra’s solo record lands in North America, a prodigious work by a prodigal artist. Only 22, Johnson has crafted a record as accessible as it is experimental, and while it’s not the full fruition of her talent, is a work of remarkable promise.

She shows studied sensibilities: Her interlocking layers call to mind the Dirty Projectors, her avant pop tendencies will draw comparisons to Lady Gaga and her African-influenced singing sounds a bit like Paul Simon, at least on ‘Graceland.’ While each of those artists have had the full benefit of their careers to craft an artistic statement, Kimbra is just at the beginning of hers, and, even so, shows remarkable maturity — for the most part. It’s all too easy to write off her overstretching indulgences as the foibles of youth, though that is what they may be. ‘Plain Gold Ring’ begins to plod into its third minute, ‘Two Way Street’ loses some of its direction and ‘Call Me’ is bit of a wide-eyed Amy Winehouse number. Not that that’s a bad thing.

‘Vows’ is at its most memorable when Kimbra’s inborn talent matches her appetite for experimentation. Opener ‘Settle Down’ features that angelic voice looped and chopped and reworked, providing rhythm as well as melody/ Kimbra, here, is incessantly, exuberantly clever. ‘Good Intent’ is direct in comparison, her voice slinking over a Latin beat, an update on the lounge singer’s come-hither call, full of menace and libido: “You know you shouldn’t be there, but it’s way past that.

When she slows it down, the New Zealander can get all soulful. ‘Wandering Limbs’ finds Kimbra in the format that most of her fans found her with: a lovers duet. While the breakout hit was jilted, this track is yearning. “Are we tangled in each other,” she asks Sam Lawrence, whose greatest offense is not being Gotye. With ‘Withdraw’, her acrobatic voice floats over restrained bass before being joined by chunky organ keys, a neo-gospel take on the ‘”I can’t leave you” theme. At five minutes long,  ‘The Build Up’ is slow, confident, and confiding, a pastel fusion somewhere between Regina Spektor and Bjork — and as the best cuts on ‘Vows,’ is as intimate as it is innovative.

With this much range, any overreaching is forgiven. Please, Kimbra, give us more.

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