In Brief: A bold, dense, and sometimes downright bizarre album that throws everything but the kitchen sink at the type of music a singer born at the beginning of the 90s loved during her childhood. Fans of Vows might find it tough to swallow at first, but don’t cry “sellout”, because even at some of its poppiest moments, The Golden Echo is more concerned with making art than with finding an easy route to the charts.
When an artist whose chosen genre is off of my beaten path manages to get my attention, I’m never sure if it’s a fluke, or if I’ll get consistent enjoyment out of that artist in the future. Usually that sort of thing happens when an established artist changes up their sound, potentially rankling their long-time fans by incorporating more pop/rock sensibilities into a sound that was previously less commercial, or else taking the expected chart-topping success story and challenging it with more indie-minded experimentation. Sometimes they do this sort of thing on a lark before returning to their core sound on the next album (and subsequently losing my interest). But sometimes, I don’t even know what the initial point of reference was supposed to be, because the unique sound that got my attention came from an artist’s debut album.
That was definitely the case with Kimbra‘s Vows, a record which I discovered rather late in the game, well after she’d had her moment in the spotlight, by way of that Gotye song. I knew going in not to expect her solo work to sound anything like Gotye’s, but I actually found a similar “throw tons of vintage sound effects at the studio and see what sticks” sort of mindset, just with more of an R&B/jazz sort of vibe to it. I couldn’t hope to name all of the pioneers of dance and soul music she was referencing on that album, but she proved herself as a triple threat on that album, with her highly elastic vocals being the superficial big draw, but with her songwriting and composing skills giving it a lot of staying power. She seemed equally comfortable creating slick neo-soul ballads with looped vocals and quirky percussion as she did with throwing herself into an indulgently nostalgic dance track or a jazzy torch song. She took music that I might normally consider “not my style” and won me over to them with her complex and yet lovely melodies. And she proved she wasn’t just a figurehead for some bigwig producers doing all of the heavy lifting behind the scenes, when she recreated a lot of those songs from scratch, often with minimal backing band accompaniment, in her live shows, sometimes even stripping them down to a simple piano or acoustic guitar to reveal that a good song still stood on its own apart from all of the studio trickery and the outlandish costuming seen in her music videos. I figured whatever she did next was bound to be unpredictable.
The Golden Echo, Kimbra’s second album (well, second and a half if you consider the new material recorded for the US re-release of Vows) certainly delivered on that expectation of unpredictability. At first glance, it’s a noisier, denser, and more colorful outing than its tastefully restrained predecessor. The more urban sensibility heard on its lead singles suggests a stronger bid for mainstream stardom, but then you hear the rest of it and you start to realize that this is the kind of music that takes the slow path to your heart. On first listen, I couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it – and I made the mistake of letting my first exposure to the album be her video for “90s Music”, which could easily be mistaken for a Lady Gaga knockoff if you don’t understand where she’s coming from (the two ladies bear passing visual similarities despite being brought up on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean). As much as I grew to love the song, I fear for those potential listeners who might get a horrible first impression from that intentionally over-the-top video. And yet I understand why a lot of the other songs on The Golden Echo might be a tough sell as far as radio singles are concerned – there’s a lot of gooey, catchy madness to be found here, but it’s sprinkled with so much idiosyncrasy that your average radio deejay would probably expect her to dial it back a bit for mainstream consumption. Throughout this record, the precocious young Kiwi indulges herself in seeing how many sounds and weird ideas she can throw at a lot of these tracks, and while it sometimes threatens to destroy the intimacy inherent in a few of them, it’s an admirable move for an artist who probably could have coasted her way through another round of affable dance tracks like my personal favorite “Cameo Lover”, or tastemaker blog bait like the undeniably catchy “Settle Down”. Almost nothing on The Golden Echo sounds a thing like those two tracks… or like most of my personal highlights from that record, for that matter. It’s more of a love letter to 90s R&B, filtered through the mind of an incurable tinkerer. If the “wall of sound” doesn’t suit your fancy, then well, I might as well just show you the door before you’ve even heard the first note of this thing.
Now, as much as I tend to love the kind of heavily layered records that reward repeat listening (and Kimbra’s the type to deliberately place the songs in a particular order, emphasizing the “full album” experience by bridging the gaps between her songs with a lot of playful interludes and such), I will say that The Golden Echo can be a bit of an albatross at times. I alluded to missing the intimacy of a few of Vows‘ better tracks… I won’t say it’s completely gone, but she subverts the “quiet, brooding torch song” trope just as easily as she embraces it. Her gift for finding her way around a soulful melody might have gone to her head in a few places where the vocal acrobatics seem designed more to show off as many weird chord progressions as she can think up than to please the ears of anyone other than a highly trained musician. Hey, I get that this is probably how more casual listeners of pop music feel about some of the moody minor key progressions and lovely dovey major seventh chords that sound straight out of the seventies that just so happen to tickle my ears. So maybe she’s just evolved to a higher plane of sonic existence or something. Still, I get this weird visual of several sangers in a recording studio (all of them clones of Kimbra, who might just be the industry’s most tireless self-backing vocalist this side of Enya), all cupping their hands to their ears and watching each other for the changes and just sort of making it up as they go along. Maybe this won’t bother you at all if you know your way around a lot of classic R&B. But pair it with an unexpectedly stilted rhythm track (she’s good with syncopation, but it’s another one of those things that she makes the odd decision to subvert when it suits her), and it can make a few of this record’s slower songs an absolute chore to get through. It’s sublime when she gets it right, though, and it’s notable that despite a cavalcade of special guests who mostly contribute instrumental parts to these wacky concoctions, Kimbra is clearly still running the show, with none of it seeming like an obvious grab for crossover success with another artist’s audience. That may mean that Kimbra is destined to be best known as the “featured” artist on someone else’s song rather than the one who gets to do the featuring. But I think this is the kind of music that’s best appreciated by a mid-size, but more attentive audience, rather than screaming for the attention of absolutely everyone in the world by way of taking the road most traveled.
Ultimately, I can’t say that The Golden Echo is an improvement over Vows, but it definitely shows growth and defiance of the expected norms for a female singer of such a young age. And that’s something that I totally respect even if I don’t always understand what she’s trying to accomplish.
1. Teen Heat
The steady beat of the drum machine and the soft keyboards at the beginning of this song don’t exactly scream brilliance at first. It’s an unassuming way to start the album, for sure, but what masquerades as a down-tempo love ballad quickly proves that there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than just pretty romantic thoughts. There’s a struggle going on here, as two young lover struggle between maintaining control and composure, and letting their basic instincts take them for a wild ride. There are lots of love songs and sex songs and sexy love songs out there, but how many are willing to drop a heavy word like “sacrosanct” in there, or to let a female singer muse, “I don’t wanna die without knowing what it’s like to move inside you?” Kimbra’s helium-laced vocals may be all dolled up for a nice night out on the town, but the chorus is where she really lets loose, with the song taking a left turn into some sort of a synth-funk party song, an emotional landslide triggered simply by her wondering, “If I cannot stop/There ain’t gonna be no coming back.” At first the stacked-up background vocals with their tricked-out spin on an otherwise simple melody seem to ruin the intimacy, but I’ve come to realize it’s these same sudden shifts in tone that kept “Settle Down” full of surprises on the last album. Just when I think I’ve got the hang of how the delicately textured parts of the song ebb and flow with the “full blast” parts, she goes and shuts the whole thing down just where I’d expect a final chorus: “If I cannot stop!” So, does that mean you actually managed to stop, or that you stopped worrying about not being able to? Before I can figure out exactly what she means, an old recording of what sounds like her as a child sneaks in, introducing the rose-colored nostalgia of the following song. (I think it kind of dulls what could have been a sharp musical segue, but that’s a minor issue.)
2. 90s Music
So, I mentioned above that I didn’t want this song (and especially its music video) to be your first exposure to the album. It’s a shock to the system at first, coming across as a garish train wreck of minimal programmed beats, and a tune that feels like it’s barely there, and vocal samples thrown in just to sound sassy. It sounds more like some hip-hop producer’s wet dream than the savvier mix of programmed pop and live instrumentation we’d heard from Kimbra before. It certainly doesn’t sound a thing like the music of her youth that she’s singing about, though the color-clashing appearance of anyone trying to look “cool” in those days fits the mood of the song quite well. I had a negative opinion of this one at first, but somewhere in that hollow mix of sonar pings and dial-up modem gibberish that it calls a beat, and those chords that stubbornly refuse to change until the chorus suddenly goes all rainbow-colored and turns the whole thing on its head, I became a slave to its Frankenstein-esque movements. It helps to remember that Kimbra does her fair share of producing, so despite the many co-writers and studio engineers and whatnot employed on this record, she’s still the one calling the shots and trying to bring a specific vision to life. And while the music video may be filled with bizarre throwback dancers and little kids and some frightfully kitschy costumes, the song’s really about something much simpler than that once you dig in – it’s a drive down memory lane, remembering that old crappy car you had to settle for as a teenager with the blown out speaker on one side and the tapes you’d play on an endless loop. A heavily garbled vocal breakdown name-checks all of her personal favorites from the era: “MJ & Mariah, Nirvana & Aaliyah, R. Kelly & Mary Blige, TLC & Left Eye.” (Man, I just realized that like half those people are dead. That’s super depressing because it wasn’t that long ago.) Ultimately, these old songs stuck in her head can’t bring back the way she felt during those more innocent times – they’re a reminder, but everything feels different now and she’s moved on. It takes some patience to find the relateable aspects of a song that mostly seems to be listing musical heroes and hoping her audience holds a similar nostalgia, but even though I wasn’t cool enough to be into any of those artists at the time (and I was actually a teenager in the 90s, unlike Kimbra, who was born in 1990, for crying out loud), I get where she’s coming from because I’ve been through that process of seeing my life back then through rose-colored glasses for a while and then realizing it’s a past I’d never want to go back and live in, as fun as it may be to visit. (Interesting side note: Matt Bellamy from Muse, a band that was actually around toward the end of the 90s, plays guitar on this track, but you’d be hard-pressed to hear him doing anything particularly unique or amazing with all of the other sounds he’s buried under. Missed opportunity, but the song doesn’t really need a guitar part anyway.)
More old recordings of little girls giggling or something like that can be heard in the background as this song’s unapologetically glittering synths fade in. I feel like I’ve heard a disproportionately high number of songs about North and/or South Carolina recently, most of them decidedly twangy, but this one’s a glitzy and fully urbanized party on wheels, so I’m actually quite surprised that it isn’t “California”, since that’s where Kimbra’s actually living nowadays. There are a million songs about California, of course, so I’ll take the road trip over staying home, because whatever she experienced as she rolled along those Atlantic beaches must have been a total blast. This song’s got one of the breeziest and most addictive melodies on the album – the kind you’d want to blast out of a roofless car on a sunny weekend afternoon. The lyrics are pretty simple – what I can make out of them, anyway, since the production throws on layer after layer and there’s some sort of a vocorder effect happening as well – it sounds cool but it’s tough to understand. (I mistook the word “postcard” for “porn star” in the second verse, which led me to some very wrong conclusions about this new life she was dreaming of at first!) She’s simply imaging putting down roots in a new place and reinventing herself. Yet there’s that familiar tug on her heartstrings, calling her back home, leading her to ponder her own wanderlust: “I’m always traveling fast to nowhere.”
4. Gold Mine
This one is the album’s first fumble, though several folks will not agree with me on this, because I’ve seen other comments on The Golden Echo sum up this song as basically the heart and soul of the album. It’s certainly got an empowering theme going for it, with Kimbra digging deep down and finding that special… something within her soul that no one else shares and no one can take away from her. A gold mine isn’t the most original metaphor for such a thing, but it’s an effective one, and the song gets off to a good start, with its earthy, almost tribal rhythm – I can almost hear the metal chains clanking and the pickaxes hitting the rocks as a team of miners hum a worksong to pass the time. But there are several spots on this album where I think Kimbra goes for a “soulful” sort of melody and just sort of falls flat in the process, returning to the same notes too many times and not giving her melodies enough body because she’s too preoccupied with the weird chord changes underneath. (I’m certain folks more knowledgeable about the genres that she’s borrowing from will have a rebuttal all ready to go, so feel free to educate me here.) Bottom line, I just feel like this song repeats itself a lot and doesn’t go much of anywhere musically. The chorus doesn’t help, torpedoing what could be a powerful proclamation of individuality with a redundant rhyme scheme: “I’ve got a gold mine, it’s all mine/Nobody can touch this gold of mine.” See, she rhymed two different meanings of the word “mine” there, so that’s… clever, I guess? the whole thing starts to feel like an annoying schoolyard chant by the time it’s over, and no amount of cool little production tricks buzzing about just under the surface can distract me from it.
The easiest inroad to this album is, quite fortunately, its other lead single, which is one of those tracks where Kimbra makes writing massive pop hooks sound like the easiest thing in the world, despite her trademark insistence on not sticking to the four chords of pop. “Cameo Lover” did exactly this on Vows, and much like that song, this one became an instant favorite of mine where it could have easily been meaningless fluff in the hands of a less capable composer. Here, she takes the old cliche of being loved so stunningly well by someone that he makes her willing to to believe in miracles and other supernatural stuff, and puts a fun retro-disco sort of spin on it. It’s probably the most obvious case where she’s simply putting on a genre hat instead of doing something distinct and challenging with it, but sometimes a songwriter just has to let loose and have fun, and it’s a blast of a performance from everyone involved – the beat, the funky bass lines, the exuberant vocals… there just isn’t a single thing out of place here. Hands down, one of my favorite songs of 2014.
6. Rescue Him
Ugh, why does my favorite song on this album have to be surrounded by two that I struggle to get through? This one’s definitely more ambitious than “Gold Mine”, but that also gives it a higher height from which to fall flat on its face. Right from the beginning, I’m decidedly not in love with the turgid rhythm of this song, which just seems to aimlessly clunk its way along as if someone had to turn a crank just to keep churning it out – it sounds ready to sputter out and die at any given moment. Kimbra’s voice sounds strained and out of its comfort zone here, which I know is an affection she’s putting on intentionally to fit the whole “everyone thinks I’m crazy” vibe of the song, but it just ends up sounding like she’s trying to put too much extra stank on a song that doesn’t need it. The lyrical premise of this one is a real doozy as well – she’s fallen for some deadbeat who keeps hurting her time and time again, yet instead of throwing the guy out on his ear like everyone around her seems to think he deserves, she decides to get all Biblical up in this joint: “Time and time again, I’ll give my forgiveness (seventy times seven)”. Now I’d be the last person in the world to insinuate that forgiveness isn’t a good thing – there are loads of “you did me wrong” type songs floating about on any given radio station that could probably use a higher dose of the stuff. But here, she seems to be confusing the idea of forgiving someone with continuing to let them walk all over you. That makes it super-uncomfortable to listen to, no matter how much the melody and its constant awkward grabbing for a hook that just isn’t there might eventually grow on me. I’ve know women who have used this rationale to stay in abusive relationships, thinking they’ve got righteousness on their side by doing so. I’m going to go ahead and assume that Kimbra is smarter than that and she’s just playing a character or looking back on a time in her life when she was more naive. But seriously, for any ladies out there who might be listening to this song: If you don’t want us to “be that guy”, please don’t “be that girl”. You’ve got all the time in the world for soul-searching and forgiveness after you’ve dumped his sorry ass.
In an inspired fit of lyrical dissonance, Kimbra throws a funky dance party here and invites all of her friends from the insane asylum. And by “friends”, I mostly mean her multiple personalities. You might miss a lot of the madness due to how the pimped-out bass and beats and synthesizers conspire to keep you moving – at times I think Kimbra was going for her own version of “Thriller” or something, but there are shades of everything from Prince to Primus lurking about here. It’s a lot of fun – especially when the party facade melts away for a few seconds here and there to reveal the truly creepy skeleton of a song underneath it – we’re looking at an A+ job in the production department here, at least if you prefer the unpredictable to the safe-for-radio variety of danceable pop music. The downside is that all of the various sounds make a mess of the lyrics, to the point where I honestly didn’t know until just now that she was singing “I’m a mess, then I’m a messiah” in the chorus. Which is a pretty ballsy lyric – I’ll give her credit for following the insanity where it leads here, even if the results aren’t quite up there with her best material.
8. Everlovin’ Ya
Oh, man. Just from the title alone, I could tell that this one was going to be a disaster. Kimbra’s got a gift for letting you inside the total, head-over-heels loopiness of falling in love with the mood of several of her slow songs – that’s what made “Old Flame” and “Wandering Limbs” such standouts on her debut. Here, her deranged muse gets the best of her, which results in a lot of interesting ideas getting buried in a sea of overwhelming weirdness. Taken in more reasonable doses, I could handle the piercing keyboard melody that takes a hard left turn to a chord that doesn’t sound at all like it belongs, until you get a feel for the song’s melody. I could handle the deep, disorienting bass wipes that come rushing up behind the beat every four bars. I could handle the duet with Bilal, who sounds like he’s got some vocal chops of his own, but who gets buried underneath a chorus of Kimbras once his verse is through. I could handle the overly cutesy call-and-response chorus that seems more interesting in splicing together a bunch of spoken word clips and sassy responses than it does in having an actual hook. No wait, scratch that last part. it’s a truly awful chorus, and it’s exactly because they throw put all of their eggs in one basket, and that basket is the word “Ya”. Maybe it’s just me, but when you say “ya” instead of “you”, isn’t it meant to be informal and clipped, a hurried shortcut to get to the next word? You can’t elongate it like you can with the more formal “you”. It just sounds super-duper silly, no matter how you may try to Mary J. Blige the hell out of it. Plus, when is the word “everlovin'” actually played straight, to mean forever loving someone? I only know it in the context of someone being out of their everlovin’ mind, which… wait, I see a pattern forming here.
9. As You Are
If your ears are weary from getting brickwalled by layer after layer of sound, then this placid little piano ballad might suit your fancy. I figure when an artist like Kimbra strips the layers back that much, she must really want us to notice whatever she has to say. She’s no longer a slave to the grid of a 4/4 rhythm here, free to let those fragile piano chords drag out a few bars past where you’d expect them to just to let the tension linger a bit longer. What sounds like a calm and heartfelt explanation of why she had to break it off with a guy takes a turn for the weird as the backing vocals come rushing in for the refrain: “Come… as… you… AAAAAAARE! Come… let… me… TAAAAAAAAAKE a picture!” This intentionally clashes with the lyrics as her story grows more and more troublesome, hinting at unwanted flashing lights and forced intimacy and OH MY GOD SHE WAS DATING A PORNOGRAPHER. (Or a paparazzo. Or Robin Thicke. I’m not sure which scenario is the worst here.) The backing vocals take a turn toward the downright demonic as the song tiptoes inexorably onward, giving me chilling flashbacks to everything from Sarah McLachlan‘s “Possession” to Radiohead‘s “Climbing Up the Walls”. I honestly had no idea she could pull off “creepy” so well.
10. Love in High Places
We’re back in radio single territory now after a sustained divergence from it ove rthe last three or four tracks. This one isn’t nearly as in your face as “90s Music” or “Miracle” – it’s the even-keeled, mid-tempo love song of the bunch, and it does its job well enough – sweet melody, lots of nature metaphors, a bit of playful electro-funk inspired soloing just to liven up the mood, but for the most part taking it easy. I’ve learned to appreciate this one over time, but I still fill that its insistent “click clack” beat (which again, seems lacking in the syncopation department) and the odd way that that Kimbra crams words into the chorus to make them rhyme and fit the rhythm really hold it back. The lyrics are a hodgepodge, ranging from the brilliant and bold – “I will be your danger/When you think nothing can change ya” – to the erratic and embarrassing coming right after it – “It’s pyrotechnical, physical/The way I rock your manger.” (OK, so I get that you didn’t want to fall back on the old self/shelf rhyme, but if you’re fresh out of rhymes for “danger” and you’re not writing a Christmas carol, then the word “manger” should be nowhere near your vocabulary.) It’s also odd the way that this song tricks you into thinking it’s fading out, then that beat comes softly clickety-clacking its way back in, then another sudden stop, then we’re back again… NEXT. SONG. ALREADY.
11. Nobody But You
Aw, yeah. She saved one of her best for the eleventh hour. I can see some nervous record label exec urging her to frontload the album with the good stuff like this John Legend co-write, but Kimbra at least had the good sense to bring some balance to an album that was starting to get excessively weird, by putting this Motown-influenced jam just where it would pack the most punch. It was a pleasant surprise when I was having difficulty getting through the record the first few times. It’s a very simple song of unbridled devotion to someone who has – yes, I know this is a massive cliche – taken all her doubts and turned them upside down. It’s not quite as effervescent as “Miracle”, but it pulls some of the same tricks in terms of the melody twisting and turning and keeping you on your toes, but none of it diluting the overall catchiness of the song. The distorted bass hints at more of a funk influence, which comes to the foreground when the song, having reached its final chorus, comes to a nice, neat little halt, and then after just enough of a pause to make you think it’s switched over to the last track – PSYCH!!! They pull out the noisy slap bass and the fuzziest synth sounds they can muster, and take the whole thing through a funktified victory lap.
12. Waltz Me to the Grave
Kimbra seems to reserve the last spot on her albums for her most abstract musings, if “The Build Up” and this track can be construed as the beginning of a pattern, at least. it opens with a piano melody that sounds like a big, swooning dance, from some black and white movie, before settling into a restrained, jazzy sort of ballad that drips with romance and also the foreboding air of finality. The lyrics are some of Kimbra’s most poetic and vivid, and there’s a lot to admire here, but once again her musical ADD seems to get the best of her, as the song quite abruptly takes a sharp turn from its pretty but subdued atmosphere into a rather discordant free-jazz sort of jam in 7/8 time. That sounds like a great idea on paper. I usually love it when slower songs unexpectedly perk up and the rhythm goes all crazyballs. But here, it just sounds like a bunch of aimless wailing and keyboard notes floating around and it rapidly turns into a spinning nightmare. This track is seven minutes long, so I was expecting this to lead into an unpredictable and epic finale of some sort, but then it just sort of quiets down and coasts to its final, solemn note… which it then hangs on for roughly a minute and a half of pure, sustained ambiance. You’d expect a hidden track of some sort after such a purposeful, pregnant pause… but nope, she just Kid A‘d me, and I hate to say that it leaves me feeling annoyed at the end of an otherwise admirable record.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Teen Heat $1.75
90s Music $1.75
Gold Mine $.50
Rescue Him $0
Everlovin’ Ya –$.25
As You Are $1.25
Love in High Places $.75
Nobody But You $1.75
Waltz Me to the Grave $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: