Kimbra's debut showcases New Zealand singer's still-developing voice
Vows (Warner Bros.)
Even if you don’t know it, you’ve heard Kimbra Johnson sing, and you’ve probably seen her, too. Hers was the female voice that very nearly upstaged Wally De Backer’s on Gotye’s ubiquitous “Somebody That I Used to Know” (which, as this review is being written, holds down the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100), and she was also in the video. She also opened for Gotye on tour in the U.S. and Canada, and performed with De Backer on Saturday Night Live.
That’s pretty good exposure for someone whose debut album hadn’t even come out in North America yet. Mind you, Kimbra is already a certified star Down Under, where Vows was released last summer. The record has gone platinum in Australia and Johnson’s native New Zealand, with “Settle Down” her biggest single to date.
It’s probably also her best song, so its position as the lead-off track on Vows means that the album peaks early. With its looping “Boom, ba-boom, ba” backing vocals, jazz-inflected harmonies, and inscrutable lyrics referencing A Place in the Sun, “Settle Down” is about as far from Katy Perry as a solo female pop singer can get. So maybe Kimbra isn’t gunning for the pop charts. There’s certainly nothing formulaic about her material, much of which was cowritten and coproduced by Australian François Tétaz (Gotye, Architecture in Helsinki). “Cameo Lover” starts as minimal electro but builds to a fully orchestrated wall of vintage-Motown sound; “Old Flame” is a big, reverb-drenched torch song; and “Posse” is beat-driven R&B (with lyrics that mention Morrissey and Joy Division, mind you).
If no other single track is quite as immediately interesting as “Settle Down”, each at least functions well as a showcase for the 22-year-old singer’s voice. And that in itself is a wonderful thing, if a still-developing one. Kimbra is capable of both breathy intimacy and soaring melody, but sometimes—check out the strained emoting on “Something in the Way You Are”—she pushes her instrument just a touch too far and veers uncomfortably close to the edge of her capabilities.
Nonetheless,Vows marks Kimbra as one to watch. And if she doesn’t quite fit into any ready-made pop niche, neither do Janelle Monáe or Florence and the Machine, and they seem to be doing okay.