For most in the United States, the first introduction to Kimbra, New Zealand’s soulful songstress, were her vocals on the breakout summer hit “Somebody That I Used To Know” by Gotye, but Kimbra is hardly the new kid on the block. Her debut solo album, 2011′s Vows, broke the top five on both Australian and New Zealand album charts, and has now been re-released with a few alterations for American audiences. On Vows, the 22-year-old leaves her role as second fiddle and takes center stage, showcasing her signature jazz-soul-pop style.
The best word to describe the songs on Vows is dense. Layers upon layers of vocal tracks, tribal beats, retro melodies and doo-wop backing vocals pack each track until it is moments away from exploding. Ironically, the opening line of the album, “I want to settle down,” contradicts the speedy, upbeat and sometimes chaotic multi-layered voiceovers that create a sort of stereo-Kimbra blast, her voice surrounding you on all sides. This juxtaposition between Kimbra’s lyrics–longing for the comfort of a committed relationship–and her voice–constantly in motion, never holding on to the same note too long–seems to be a theme throughout the rest of the album. There is literally no empty space, just a whirlwind of overdubs and catchy-ass beats that are impossible to get out of your head.
Most of Kimbra’s influences on Vows don’t venture too far back in time. She mirrors Janelle Monae-like tonalities in “Something In The Way You Are” and makes a ’90s-sounding synth-pop song of “Home.” However, “Come Into My Head” screams Motown (“It’s got a lot of syncopation and quite a heavy groove,” said Kimbra in a recent MTV interview), while “The Build Up” takes a more delicate turn with muted horns and staccato strings plucked behind an uncharacteristically breathy vocal.
Kimbra gives all that she has on Vows, sometimes to the point that it becomes a mash of harmonies, beats and effects that simultaneously impress and exhaust. She takes risks to create a mosaic of sounds that is sometimes so beautiful that it shoots right to your heart and makes your hair stand on end, and other times so daunting that your ears feel as though five uncomplimentary songs are playing at once. Kimbra’s voice is strong, her beats are catchy, and after listening to the full 55-minute album, you’re not quite sure what just happened, but you know you kind of liked it.