In Brief: A melodically rich, thrillingly nostalgic, and bizarrely eclectic concoction of an album that, though imperfect in both of its forms, marks a formidable debut for a promising young artist.
It baffles me somewhat when an international artist breaks onto the music scene here in the States, and the powers that be feel the need to rearrange, remix, and otherwise screw around with the contents of their album. I suppose this has been going on ever since the heyday of The Beatles, so it’s nothing new to complain about, but there’s a part of me that sometimes feels a little insulted when I go back and compare the version that was sold to us Americans with the artist’s original vision, as it was released overseas. I often think, “What was so inaccessible about the original that they thought we wouldn’t like it?” And usually the answer is a perceived lack of radio-friendliness. And maybe that’s fair game in the case of a few low-key indie artists who might benefit from a bonus track or two just to get a foot in the door over here. But when they start deleting stuff from the original album in favor of the new material they’re splicing into the album, that’s when it really starts to bug me.
One of the more frustrating cases of an album going through significant changes as it made its way across the pond would have to be Kimbra‘s Vows. In this case, it’s the big pond we’re talking about – the Pacific Ocean. Kimbra is a young soul/R&B singer from New Zealand, whose greatest exposure thus far has been her duet with Gotye on that one song. Don’t pretend you don’t know what song I’m talking talking about. It’s been nigh inescapable for most of 2012, and it just won the duo a Grammy, and I still love it, but I know a ton of people who have gotten sick of it. (Hell, it got parodied so much that Gotye went and made a remix video incorporating 50 or so of the parody videos that had proliferated on YouTube.) I guess someone decided after that song hit it big that Kimbra, who had released Vows in 2011 back in her homeland, deserved a good promotional push over here. To her label’s credit, they took an already solid and soulful eleven-song effort and transformed it into a nearly non-stop party of an album featuring thirteen songs, and most of the new material they added is worth hearing. But the six new songs present came at a bit of a price, since four songs from the original version got deleted, including a few of my favorites.
See, I wasn’t aware of the two versions when I first downloaded the album, so I ended up with the original version, which I quickly fell in love with due to Kimbra’s deep knowledge of the ingredients that make a soulful melody stand out, and the delicate balance of upbeat sass and down-tempo intimacy that made the album so satisfying from beginning to end. Most of the down-tempo material leading up to the end of the album is what got lost in translation, and what sits in its place now is a handful of tracks that give off a stellar party vibe, as well as furthering Kimbra’s exploration into the synthesis of nostalgic R&B tropes and modern electronic and indie pop song structures. It’s still one hell of a smorgasbord – I honestly can’t look you in the eye and tell you the new version pales in comparison to the old. It’s just that there’s this added dilemma of both versions feeling somewhat incomplete. I’ve resolved this by combining all seventeen tracks into one mega long-playing album on my iPod, which still presents some issues concerning the track order. But in order not to confuse you, the reader, too much, I’ll be focusing mainly on the US version of the album in this review, and then briefly touching on the discarded tracks at the end.
So what exactly does Kimbra sound like when she’s not telling off somebody who used to know her? Well, honestly, that Gotye song doesn’t even begin to prepare you. Her approach ranges from full-on wailing diva, to sonic and melodic experimentation that tips its hat to artists like Stevie Wonder and Prince and Nina Simone and probably a few girl groups from the 70s up through the 90s that I’m failing to name because I only ever caught wind of that stuff as an outside observer the first time around. (Maybe even throw in a little Björk on one track.) At times, the same sort of heavily-sampled pastiche of found sounds that can make a Gotye song so addictive accomplishes the same results for Kimbra. At other times, I’m getting these weird flashbacks to my high school days, when the sort of drum and keyboard programming that was hot at the time could conspire with a serpentine vocal melody to paint pictures of a utopian urban neighborhood where kids are jumping rope and playing in the sprinklers and riding their bikes to the local liquor store on a beautiful summer day. This sort of thing usually isn’t my style, but due to Kimbra’s knack for expressing herself with far more than the usual four chords of pop and a keen ability to change up the musical approach and make sure the entire album isn’t just focused on her bring-the-house down vocal abilities, she proves to be an excellent horizon-broadener. I just can’t seem to get tired of this album.
1. Settle Down
The first song is not only a testament to Kimbra’s ability to genre-hop, but also her ability to layers those genres effortlessly. It starts off acapella, its rhythm constructed from snippets of mouth sounds, hand claps, and excited girlie shouts. This alone would have been playful enough for a tune that finds Kimbra, at the ripe old age of 21 or so, describing her sweet dream of settling down and starting a family with the man she loves. Seems innocent enough, but the guy’s still playing the field, so she steps up the sex appeal a notch with some drums and a rather “grimy”-sounding horn section. When the song finally reaches its chorus, the final layers have been added, including piano and strings, so it’s a bit of a streetwise baroque pop buffet at that point, fittingly letting the light shine in as she makes the sort of wish a young girl writing in her diary might make: “Star so light, star so bright, keep him by my side!” Even though the lyrics are admittedly a bit childish here (she wants to name her child “Nebraska Jones”, and the second verse includes the painful rhyme “She’s got a fancy car/She wants to take you far”), it somehow works because it’s easy to imagine Kimbra writing this as a teenager, imagining her life as an adult in a few years, and then applying some truly grown-up genius to it musically by the time she actually had the record deal and the budget to do it justice.
2. Something in the Way You Are
A new single tacked on to the US version is up next – it’s the sort of R&B ballad that seems awfully intense, vocally speaking, for so early in the record. That said, it’s a beautiful song with a gorgeous melody and a stunning, climactic chorus, plus it proves that Kimbra can sang (possibly a bit too much, actually – her voice is powerful but she overdoes it a tad here). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall in love with it almost immediately despite it breaking up the flow of the album I was familiar with. The rat-a-tat-tat of the drums and a bass line wandering up and down between two keys that don’t seem to agree with each other until Kimbra’s singing begins to make some sense of it, are a curious hook that get the song off to a slow start. The joy of this one is listening to how it slowly builds, to the point where the drums and synths and backing vocals are all cascading like waterfalls on the final chorus. It’s fitting for a song about all of the little character traits that make Kimbra fall head over heels for a guy – the development of the song mirrors the way that the heart overflows as it discovers more and more about a newfound crush, until reaching the point where those feelings just can’t be held in any more. It’s funny how we’ve had two songs in a row with incredibly youthful subject matter, and yet Kimbra has handled each one with the musical sophistication of an artist who you would readily assume is already several albums deep into her discography.
3. Cameo Lover
Out of all the tracks with insane hooks on this album, this would be the one that I’ve had stuck in my head for a month solid. It’s a dance track, the most brash and up-tempo thing on the album (or at least the original version of it), and yet despite all of the candy-coated choreography going on here, the musical genius of it doesn’t get sacrificed or even placed on the back burner. The slick transition from programmed rhythm to live band energy (complete with horn section) as she reaches the chorus is brilliantly played, as are the key changes that she pulls to yank the simple verse melody into that chorus’s 3-dimensional world. A lot of the same personality quirks that were present in “Settle Down” shine through here as well, just in more of a high-energy setting. Her excited shouts of “Open up your heart!” seem to be directed at that same distracted young man, one who is apparently “tangled in ladies” but who hasn’t even noticed the one who has far more affection for him than anyone else. Ah, the silly drama of young love. More than any other track on the album, this is the one that gives me strong flashbacks to the early 90s, when the kinds of girls I liked in high school but was afraid to approach about it were presumably listening to this kind of music. (The scary thing is that Kimbra was literally in diapers back then.)
4. Love Is a Two-Way Street
“There’s no conspiracy behind the way two hearts meet.” So goes the chorus hook of a song that takes a little more time than some of the others to fully “unfold”, due to its looser, more easygoing rhythm, but that proves to be pretty much as infectious as the incredible songs that have preceded it. I didn’t think I would like this one at first, because it’s got this sort of irritating, repetitive piano riff at the beginning, and songs built around that sort of thing tend to go nowhere melodically and instead try to bludgeon you with the rhythm to make you consider them “catchy”. Not so with the delicious arrangement behind this song, which weaves in the meek quivering of harps and strings, the exotic strumming of a Spanish guitar, and plenty of shimmering vocal layers as Kimbra does her best to find a moment of personal zen as she realizes she can’t force a guy to fall for him. There’s a sort of progression evident from the first few songs to this one – she was hopelessly in love and gung ho about trying to yank the guy out of his dream state and make him see it, but here she accepts the reality that none of it’s any use if he doesn’t come to the same conclusion on his own. Kimbra milks the “two-way street” analogy for all it’s worth in the verses, and while lyrics tend to take a backseat to melody on most of these songs, I have to say that I admire her ability to take a somewhat cliched analogy and actually run with it, committing an entire song to that setting, rather than stringing together random platitudes like magnetic poetry as so many lovey-dovey pop songs like to do.
5. Old Flame
As “Two Way Street” settles into the colder, more mechanical textures of this ballad, Kimbra explores the “smokier” lower range of her voice, once again doing her best to match the musical setting to the frigid imagery the lyrics, which are a plea to a former lover whom she discovers, upon looking him up after a long absence, that he’s moved on and no longer has feelings for her. She brings more than enough “fire” to the song for both of them – when the keyboards and programming and the loud, echoing percussion suddenly come crashing into the song, it’s like she’s awakening some sort of ancient spell from a long hibernation. It’s one of the most intense and impressive songs on the album, both in terms of the vocal range she displays and the compelling emotional reaction that I have to it. The precision with which rounds all of the tight melodic curves in this song is stunning, and the meticulously arranged backing vocals give the song the sort of empowerment that would normally take a girl group of three or more members to achieve, except that they’re all the same voice, which gives it more of a haunting quality because KIMBRA WILL NOT TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER, DAMMIT. (Admittedly, my inner comedian has to chuckle a bit at the line, “Old flame, can you feel it burning still?” If it’s been that many years since an amorous encounter, and you’ve still got a burning sensation, you might just want to see a doctor about it.)
There’s a very brief acapella interlude after this song, miked to sound like it was recorded in the early days of vocal jazz or something, which focuses on the single lyric “Someone’s been sleeping downstairs”, and which features a vocal imitation of a trumpet… even though there’s an actual muted trumpet accompanying her. It’s not really relevant to anything else on the album, but it’s a quick reminder of how far back Kimbra’s influences reach.
6. Good Intent
Speaking of jazz, there’s definitely a strong jazz influence on this up-tempo and refreshingly organic pop song, which sets aside a lot of the programming and lets the delicious sound of an upright bass keep the beat. “Organic” doesn’t have to mean sparse or underproduced in this case – this one’s another example of the “girl group energy” I mentioned earlier, in terms of the attitude Kimbra brings to the song in both her lead and backing vocal performances. Unusual instruments – perhaps a xylophone or glockenspiel? – can be heard tinkering in the background, just to add a “rickety” sort of feel to the sassy melody, and later, there are some experimental bits of electric guitar. And then of course, there’s that muted trumpet again. Genre-wise, I really don’t know how to classify this one, but that’s what makes it so exciting. The lyrics are actually quite difficult to interpret on this one, but they carry a sense of danger to them – there seems to be some sort of a story being very loosely told about a man out looking for some action who gets more than he bargained for when a woman beats the crap out of him and leaves him for dead. I’m not sure who the protagonist is in that story, and who’s the villian (did he take things too far and get what he deserved, or was he just a regular Joe who got ambushed on what he thought was an innocent date?), but that makes the song even more intriguing.
7. Plain Gold Ring
I normally don’t approve of the practice of cramming a live recording of a song into an album otherwise crafted in the studio. It tends to break up the flow of the album due to the production values and sound quality being completely different. It’s especially weird in this case, since the original release of the album already had a studio version of this song, and here it’s been replaced by a “live” version that honestly doesn’t sound like it was recorded with an audience present. Maybe it was all done in a single take? It certainly sound like Kimbra spends the beginning of the song creating the background vocals from scratch and then looping them throughout the rest of it, so perhaps that’s what sets it apart from her usual in-studio methods. Either way, the re-recording actually adds a ton of appeal to this tribute to one of Kimbra’s idols, Nina Simone. Now I don’t know a heck of a lot about Ms. Simone, other than the fact that she was an eclectic artist, had a knack for improvisation in a live setting, and that she had a legendary temper – you didn’t want to mess with her if you knew what was good for you. Two of those three traits (thankfully not that last one!) are echoed in this cover of one of her earliest songs, which finds Kimbra pining for a married man who she knows she can never have as she effectively builds layer upon layer of vocal support for herself, holding more and more loosely to the song’s repetitive, trance-like melody as her band catches fire near the end of it. The previously recorded studio version lacked this bring-the-house down approach and also found Kimbra hitting some really weird notes – it was a bit of a speed bump in an otherwise solid album, so I’m glad they tweaked it to make it closer to how she presumably performs it in concert. Her backing band is pretty stripped down – just drums, bass and an electric guitar from what I can tell – but as they grow louder to match her wailing near the end, it becomes an effective fusion of rock, jazz, and soul. I can’t say how it compares to the original, but it was on Simone’s very first album, so I’m willing to bet she vamped and improved on it in seemingly infinite ways over the course of her career as well.
Grade: C (original version) / B (live version)
8. Come into My Head
We’re thrown headlong back into modern-day sounds as the album slides into its back half – this is where the original album has been almost completely gutted and replaced with new songs, which for me gives it the same sort of feeling as the first time you visit a brand new shopping mall that’s been built where an old park you used to play in as a child has been razed to the ground. Now that sounds a bit harsh, and I don’t mean to say that the replacement songs are lacking in soul by any stretch of the imagination – the crackling beat and the sharp snap of the bass line here have are just as compelling as some of the more attitude-heavy tracks from earlier on, but despite the addition of some “big band” elements like a saxophone, I have to admit that a bit of the nostalgia factor has been ruined here, since I can’t immediately map this one to its sources from earlier decades. (She may be borrowing from other classic artists, as far as I know, but at the very least, the programming sounds pretty modern.) This song may well be about a romantic relationship, but its attitude is far from romantic, since it seems to describe a verbal sparring match between two people who are being brutally honest with each other. There’s a sense, as Kimbra forcibly offers him “apiece of my mind”, that the fighting comes with its own strange brand of intimacy – perhaps for the first time, these two people are finding out what the other person really thinks and hopes and dreams and fears, if only because their desires and plans for the future seem to be clashing violently.
9. Sally I Can See You
Of the new tracks present, this is the one that sounds the least like it relies on R&B, jazz or soul influences – it’s pretty much straight-up electro-pop with some curious syncopation and a bit of indie pop influence here and there. It’s a different side of Kimbra’s personality, admittedly a strange landscape for her talented vocals due to how robotic and meticulous the arrangement is, but an interesting one all the same due to how it merges its big production values with its small-scale instrumental tinkering. This is where I realize why Kimbra and Gotye are such a good pairing, because this is quite similar to the way Gotye would assemble a song. The lyrics may be aiming for a more intelligent take on something like “Jenny From the Block” – you know, the sort of a song where a pop singer who has hit it big goes back to her hometown and tries to assure an old friend that even though her lifestyle has changed, the girl inside hasn’t. “There’s a child that I left in the town I treasure” is one of her ways of putting it. Just as the song doesn’t go for the obvious hook where you think it might, the lyrics also find a woman at a crossroads where she’s unsure of herself – excited to see where her life as a cosmopolitan, world-traveling performer will take her, but apprehensive about the possibility of losing her small-town innocence.
There’s nothing subtle about this massive, stomping anthem. It’s got the most in-your-face beat out of anything on the album, and Kimbra approaches it with an intentional flatness to her voice that falls just short of total campiness as she declares her reasons for not wanting to become part of the in-crowd. Sometimes I think this is a little like how Lady Gaga might sound if she didn’t focus so much on the outlandish outfits and intentional shock tactics. But I’m rather out-of-step with the mainstream myself, so I can’t be sure. Either way, Kimbra’s anti-hipster stance is amusing and easy to root for: “You’ve got Morrissey and Joy Division on CD/But I don’t go for them, I can’t move to that beat/I like Marvin Gaye and Gospel music, my soul and my heart/But you call it noise, you always spoil my favorite parts.” (Oh honey, don’t you know? The emo scenesters all have that stuff on vinyl now.) Any song that declares an artist’s insistence on marching to the beat of her own drummer is bound to make me smile, at least if she’s following up on that promise musically – it’s the little quirky instrumental touches and a set of lyrics which I know are too personal to have been written by anyone else that make it work. Although, I must admit, there’s a part of me that wonders if the apparent double entendre in the chorus ever occurred to her. “I don’t want to be in your posse, girl!” Surely there must have been a better way to phrase that.
Another interlude follows here, one which fades in and out like a dream, is soaked to the core with girlish pop melodies, and gives the brief impression of children playing on a sunny day (listen carefully to the background). This originally came after one of the tracks that has since been “deleted” from the album, so it’s a bit strange that the interlude survived. But closer analysis reveals that it’s actually a reprise of the refrain from “Settle Down”, so I guess it made sense to keep it.
This is the only one of the “new” tracks that doesn’t work quite as much magic for me as the rest of the album. It means well, with its strong “ooh”s and punchy string hits, but something about its rhythm feels clunky to it, like it never really gets off the ground. There are enough synthesized and sampled elements here that it sounds like they had trouble settling on a good pace for the song, as if certain samples had to be sped up or slowed down to match the intended pitch and rhythm. Here Kimbra tackles the philosophical question of “Where is home?”, as if to say that it’s less of a physical place and more of a state of mind… we’ve heard similar thoughts from many an artist hung up on the malaise that can come as a side effect of one too many months spent on tour. This one means well, but by the time it really seems to get going, it inconspicuously ends, so this is the point where I find myself a bit more frustrated about the missing songs, nearly all of which are superior to this one.
12. The Build Up
The sudden shift back to material from the original album is quite jarring here, as this is Kimbra’s slowest and sparsest song by far. Originally, the material gradually ramped down the tempo so that it felt like you were peeling off the layers and getting to know Kimbra’s quieter side a bit better by the time you got here. Now, this eclectic ballad just becomes an egregious, gaping chasm in the middle of a plateau of upbeat songs. I find it interesting that they kept this track in the first place – I think it’s artfully composed and fascinatingly unexpected At the same time, it isn’t really one of my favorites on either version of the album. This is where Kimbra makes me think of Bjork – not a bad thing in and of itself – as she constructs a rhythm out of dampened, clanging metallic sounds and gradually adds blurred layers of horns and vocals on top of it, so that you only really get the hang of its rhythm about halfway through the song. Since the song is about wanting to get to the most intimate parts of a romance without the roller-coaster of emotions and the uncertainty and potential for misunderstanding that tend to precede it, it makes perfect since for the music to subvert your expectations of a big finish – there is supposed to be no build up. So the melody, while structured, is intentionally muted by an almost whispered delivery, and even when there’s a flourish of sound at the end of the final “verse”, it collapses back into nothingness, reminding me of some of the most free-form tracks on albums like Volta or Biophilia. (To be fair, this track is comparatively more structured than a lot of Bjork’s experiments in this style.) I respect this one even if I can’t really get into it, but I suspect it’s going to confuse a lot of listeners over here in the western hemisphere, because on our version of the album, it shows up apropos of absolutely nothing.
The final song (listed as a “bonus track” just so they can have an excuse to tack it on here with total disregard for pacing) is another upbeat, synth-heavy, contemporary dance song, which is all grown-up and assertive in the same vein as “Come into My Head”. Here, she’s stoic in the face of men who seek to push her down and marginalize her, coming up with an anthem in defiant response that I suppose you could interpret as feminist – it depends on whether you consider her response to be a definitive victory over that sort of treatment or whether you catch on to the feeling of uncertainty that seems to be boiling underneath. She’s not uncertain about whether she should show that strength, mind you – just whether she honestly has it in her to fight back instead of taking the easy way out and letting the boat go unrocked. I’m sure interpretations will vary. At times, this one feels like it came from a much more straightforward pop-record, since it’s catchier on much more of a simplistic level than some of the “classier” songs from earlier in the album. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun all the same.
TRACKS FROM THE INTERNATIONAL VERSION:
Here’s what got left out on the re-release. These are tracks 7-10 on the original (so they come after “Plain Gold Ring”), plus a hidden track following “The Build Up”.
Another jazzy song with a relaxed tempo (so relaxed that it feels mildly awkward at times). The oddly syncopated rhythm fits Kimbra’s rambling lyrics, but I guess they felt that the American audience likes its rhythms a bit tighter. The horn section here feels like it came from a late night talk show’s house band or something. That’s not a criticism, but this is definitely one of the stranger genre-bending songs on the original release.
If you liked the formula that made “Settle Down” such a winner and wouldn’t mind hearing another song with those same ingredients, then this concoction of percussive, clap-happy rhythms with its melodic hook stitched together from several different vocal snippets oughta do the trick. It’s not as charismatic of a song as “Settle Down”, falling more on the quirky side of things than the “guaranteed hit” side, but it’s also an enjoyably upbeat, toe-tapping tune that throws in some funky guitar licks here and there just for contrast, as if the guitarist had shown up that day expecting to record a funk song rather than a peppy pop song.
(The reprise of “Settle Down” originally appeared between these two songs, by the way.)
The crackle of static and some repetitive piano chords open this gorgeous duet – one which I knew instantly that I would love despite its mechanical rhythm and repetitive nature, because man, that is just a delicious chord progression. Almost all of the piano chords are major-seventh, and to me those are the kind of chords that immediately signal musical decadence. Major chords would be too straightforward and dull the colors of a song like this, and minor chords would be too moody given the cinematic, ethereal scope that this song aims for, but it takes a talented artist to pull off a melody that revolves around such an unusual sequence of notes without it sounding completely avant-garde and off-putting to the ears. Here Kimbra duets with the smooth male vocals of Sam Lawrence – no idea who he is, but I love how the two trade off lines, their voices gradually intertwining as the song bends and twists like some sort of magical garden. The lyrics are pretty surreal – it’s open to your interpretation whether this one’s about ascending to a higher plane of spirituality, or just having really good sex. (The chorus does end in the line “I think I fell into a strange place with wandering limbs and eager hands”, so draw your own conclusions.) If it’s about the latter, then this song is to lovemaking what your average radio-friendly, “romantic” slow jam is to casual screwing. It’s the musical equivalent of a long, languid Sunday afternoon spent in the throes of emotional as well as physical intimacy. As the last bits of improvisation from the piano trickle out at the end, they slowly morph into bells, which fade out on a variation of the song’s initial chord progression, as if to say that the love affair described within transcends space and time. You can see why I’m upset about this one getting cut from the American release. (Though supposedly some copies have it as a hidden track? Tacked on to a bonus track? What marketing monkeys came up with that idea when it could have just been left in the proper track listing? Sheesh.)
The intense beauty of “Limbs” gives way to this quieter ballad, a bit of a torch song which is deliberately sparse at first, plodding along in slow 3/4 time as Kimbra sadly reminisces about a love that she’s had to say goodbye to. Perhaps memories of such decadent encounters make it difficult to let go, but whatever the reason, she’s stuck on the notion that “I can’t withdraw your heart from mine”. While subdued, this one’s notable for how its big aha! moments can so suddenly sneak up on you – the verse gives way rather suddenly to a slick key change and an unfettered outpouring of emotion in what I guess you would call the “bridge”. This one worked perfectly as a segue between “Limbs” and “The Build Up”, so while it might not be as catchy as any of the brash, loud pop songs that replaced it, losing it had the unfortunate side effect of leaving the latter song stranded.
This one was no great loss, since it was just a meek little hidden track that originally came after the end of “The Build Up” – already a sparse song which relied heavily on eerie silence to fill in its gaps. Nothing about it was really that memorable, and it felt like it was just belaboring the point after a song that already did a good job of closing the album on a quiet but melancholy note.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Settle Down $1.75
Something in the Way You Are $1.50
Cameo Lover $2
Love Is a Two-Way Street $1.50
Old Flame $2
Good Intent $1.75
Plain Gold Ring $1.25
Come into My Head $1.25
Sally I Can See You $1.25
The Build Up $.50
Settle Down $1.75
Cameo Lover $2
Love Is a Two-Way Street $1.50
Old Flame $2
Good Intent $1.75
Plain Gold Ring $.50
Call Me $1
Wandering Limbs $2
The Build Up $.50
Somebody Please $0
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.