Kimbra Johnson is young (22), kinda-sorta sexy (not hating the Mary Tyler Moore hairdo) and blessed with both a genre-hopping musical sensibility and a hair-raising voice that swoons and soars straight to your deepest pleasure zones. If you’re a non-New Zealander, it’s likely your first brush with Kimbra euphoria came from the singer’s brief-yet-memorable cameo on Gotye’s lush break-up jam “Somebody That I Used To Know,” quite possibly the year’s most inescapable pop sensation. But Kimbra’s not exactly a newbie: Her solo debut album, 2011’s Vows, was a goldmine in both Australia and her home country—now the rest of us get a chance to catch up with this re-issued (and slightly re-adjusted) American version.
If Vows proves anything, it’s that Kimbra isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. These songs are massive—slickly recorded and crammed to the brim with overdubs, as if the singer-producer was afraid to leave any sonic stone unturned. In terms of epic vision, the closest comparison has to be Janelle Monáe, an artist who demonstrated a similar quirky, manic fearlessness (and vocal soulfulness) on her breakthrough 2010 effort, The ArchAndroid.
You could do a lot of name-dropping on Vows (and I’d encourage it—it’s kinda fun), mostly since Kimbra’s voice fits in rarely unobtrusively in today’s trendy faux-soul-jazz vocal realm. But when she’s focused and firing on all cylinders, Kimbra finds worlds of goodness all her own: “Settle Down” may be a tad cutesy (She asks a potential mate to settle down and raise a child named, of all things, “Nebraska Jones”), but the groove is irresistible—full of glistening vocal harmonies, dusty vinyl drum breaks, handclaps, and honky mouth harps. “Something in the Way You Are,” with its dubby bassline, clicky percussion and ‘90s R&B diva harmonies, suggests Aaliyah jamming with Animal Collective at a midnight-desert-glow-stick rave. “Home” is heady, top-notch digital funk, with pizzicatto strings rubbing elbows with a blaring drum kit and sugary synths, and the Kate Bush-ish “Sally I Can See You” rides a bewitching bass-and-percussion groove to a cross-section of artsiness and pure pop pleasure.
Over-ambition is an admirable problem to have, but Vows does suffer occasional genre-overload. Ominous synth-bass jam “Old Flame” is a bit aimless, and the sassy “Good Intent” strives for retro girl-group territory but comes up a bit anonymous. And overall, the intensity gets a bit taxing. Kimbra’s delicate touch on “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a bit misleading since, on Vows, she typically operates at a non-negotiable full-blast—a bit of Gotye’s restraint could have offered some much-needed breathing room: By album’s end, you feel like your brain’s been violated by a malfunctioning jukebox. It’s difficult to remember what happened, though you’re fairly sure you enjoyed a great deal of it.