Shooting to international prominence with her guest appearance on Gotye’s ‘Somebody I Used to Know,’ Kiwi singer-songwriter Kimbra Johnson has followed the hype with her debut record, Vows – a mixed affair of confused influences.
Kimbra got pretty lucky with that Gotye song didn’t she? Thirty seconds of singing and some background moans and somehow just as much was made about her guest appearance as the song itself. It’s strange when you think of how much came out of her featured credit, but to be fair, she does bring a hell of a lot to those thirty seconds. If her first single Settle Down wasn’t already in the charts when Gotye began dominating them, then you could be cynical enough to pass the success of her debut off as wakeboarding on his coat-tails. Fortunately for Kimbra though, she beat the guy to the punch, and with Vows, has arguably crafted herself a better record.
The thing about featuring on such a high profile song as ‘Somebody I Used to Know’ is that comparisons between her work and that of her cross-Tasman collaborator are inevitable. Sure, you can argue this is a better record than Gotye’s, but his isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and to be honest, either is Vows. Marketed almost as a mid-point between the pop singer indie cred of Leslie Feist and the big budget diva-dom of your Britney-Aguilera derivatives, the record instead comes off as an un-interesting fence sitter. There’s nothing to overtly hate, and there’s nothing to really draw you in any further beyond a little instrumental flourish or two. It’s watered down, tightly constructed and a little dull…but it has its moments.
Vows is a varied, inconsistent homage to the evolution of pop in the same way that Cee Lo Green spends his solo time name checking old-school funk and soul. Old Flame is an assured, lolling take on 80’s hair-ballads, resplendent in its sluggish kick drum beats and swooping synth lines, while Good Intent is another pleasing highlight, the xylophone flourishes and interjecting brass painting from an eerie fun-house palette. Plain Gold Ring isn’t so bad either, lazily thumping through a determined reach into the extreme depths of Kimbra’s vocal range to erotically maudlin consequence…but the problem is that beyond this three track run, it’s mostly polished pop that’s hard not to wince at.
The nu-funk arrangement of Call Me (no doubt torn from the hip-hop archives of M-Phases who receives a production credit for half the album) plants the track firmly in the Knowles school of pop, while the gold-sheen double of Cameo Lover and Two Way Punch are cringeworthy reaches into the Top 40 of the last decade. The back end of the album doesn’t leave as much of a sore-spot as the aforementioned double, but it does languish in inoffensive nothingness, James Blake-esque beat-soul ballads bringing nothing to the plate that isn’t just a spotlight on Kimbra’s vocal talents.
The album’s biggest flaw lies in how rapidly tired it gets if you have the perseverance to push through the album’s beginnings. The countless walls of a capella loops are predictable and nowhere near as effective as the brief instrumental flourishes Kimbra sticks into tracks like Good Intent, making them little more than showy party-tricks. Meanwhile, the rises and falls in her vocal is nothing especially gripping; undeniably beautiful, yes, but My Brightest Diamond it ain’t.
Vows postures as an experimental pop record, but doesn’t have the courage to pass up the commercial gain inherent in sticking to the middle of the road. The moments when the record derails itself towards quirkier territory are the ones where this album shines, but without the willingness to truly explore creative arrangements, it instead comes across as watered-down Bjorkism normalized to the lowest common denominator.
Vows by Kimbra is out now on Warner Music.