Kimbra's debut is an impressive feat for a pop artist, who's not playing by pop artist rules.
Esthero broke into the Canadian music scene back in the late ‘90s when things were changing from the grit of grunge music into the short-lived fad of electronica music. Electronica was ultimately replaced with synthesized pop music, still going strong approximately 10 years later. Esthero’s debut release Breath from Another was an expertly crafted meld of rock and hip hop, complete with strong vocals and scratching DJ loops. Kimbra, for all intents and purposes, is Esthero revisited. Her eerily similar vocals, coupled with her tenacity towards rhythmically intricate pop music, is so completely reminiscent of Esthero it’s uncanny. But wait! Kimbra was born in New Zealand, and is now based outside of Melbourne, Australia. How could her sound be so similar to that of someone living so far away? Coincidence, I suppose. Regardless, have a listen to either of Esthero’s albums once you inhale Kimbra’s Vows and you’ll be floored at just how similar these artists are – it’s almost like they’re the same person. It’s difficult to find any dissimilarities between the two. Fortunately (for Kimbra), she’s talented enough in her own right, and she’s emulating an already (practically) forgotten Canadian songstress. So, Esthero comparisons aside, Kimbra manages to hold her own as an almost unique talent.
Kimbra’s Vows begins auspiciously enough with the vocal manipulation of “Settle Down”. Her “boom-ba-boom ba’s” and “woah-hey-wahs” set the tone for this rhythm heavy album. The first lines Kimbra lays down conversely set the mood: “I want to settle down / I want to settle down / Won’t you settle down with me / Settle down.” There’s not much to it, taken out of context of the rest of the song, the opening lines are kind of lacklustre. Upon first listen, I thought nothing of it. The track meanders on for about a minute and 45 seconds, as Kimbra explains that her partner in domesticity should steer clear of Angie Vickers, who will only lead him astray. But then the chorus hits: “Star so light and star so bright / First star I see tonight / Star so light and star so bright / Keep him by my side.” Its enigmatic magnetism pulls you in and lifts you up off your ass. It explodes with the apt precision that a song about domesticity requires to make it profound. You can’t help but fall madly in love with this tune.
Continued listens only ingratiate Kimbra further, revealing that you are in the midst of a vibrant and audacious talent. “Settle Down” is a textbook example of perfectly crafted pop/soul/rock music. It lingers, teasing you for the big reveal, and when it hits, your heart explodes and you feel that tingle move up the back of your spine. And like every great pop artist who doesn’t have their head rammed up their own ass, Kimbra holds back on how often she lets you hear her magnificent chorus. Instead of repeating ad nauseum like so many Ke$ha’s and Britney Spears’, she understands the grace of holding back, requiring you to press repeat if you want to hear it again. It’s completely brilliant, and suddenly that lacklustre opening that you didn’t care for four minutes ago is welcomed with exuberance when you hear its quirky chime.
Unfortunately, “Settle Down” is the only truly outstanding track on Vows. But it’s OK, because the strength of the album comes from its musical cohesion and apt representation of desire told from a purely feminist perspective. Kimbra tackles the ins and outs of desire with incredible sophistication, and as a result, it’s forgivable that individually there isn’t another track that stands out in quite the same way as “Settle Down”. Collectively, the album creates a strong atmosphere with rushing soul-phonic and ease-inducing vibes. Rather than bombard you with a few choice hit singles and a bunch of filler, Vows prefers instead to keep you engaged through various sections and pieces, either in Kimbra’s throaty vocal stylings or from the masterfully produced thickness of the instrumentation. This is not to say that there are no other stand out tracks on the entire album, just none so as much as “Settle Down”. “Limbo” will captivate your senses as it flutters back and forth, while “Old Flame” will enrapture you in its maudlin brilliance and leave you nostalgic for those great soul power ballads of the late ‘80s.
The instrumentation on Vows is something to be envied by so many other lesser talented artists. Each track picks and chooses which subgenres within the vast pop spectrum it chooses to emulate, but none strays too far from the central musical focus of the album. Kimbra manages to deftly juggle so many different styles whilst maintaining the sound that is (sort of) all her own. This personal sound is nicely accented by her vocal instrumentation, which is put to good use here. It’s not overwhelming and convoluted like Imogen Heap and, understanding her limitations, never tries to aspire to what only Björk could reasonably accomplish. It’s effectively used here to accent her intricate songwriting.
The album begins to dip in energy around the ¾ mark, beginning with “Wandering Light” and ending with “The Build Up” – which is a blatant Björk-inspiration. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the first ¾ of the album highlight Kimbra’s penchant for upbeat clunky soul music. Ultimately, Kimbra’s Vows is an album that grows incredibly well with each subsequent listen. You’ll discover new reasons to love her as you become more keenly aware of each carefully placed detail throughout the record. It’s at times overwhelming, occasionally downtrodden, but will never leave you feeling bored.