Vows is the debut album from New Zealand singer/songwriter Kimbra Lee Johnson, known simply as Kimbra. Given a platform through her appearance on Gotye’s massive Baa Baa Black Sheep-esque hit ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, Vows is Kimbra’s chance to extend her fan base internationally, after already bagging the approval of many at home in New Zealand and Australia. And all of this at 22 years of age.
The album starts big. First single ‘Settle Down’ swings from muted verse to anthemic chorus via funk, soul and a whole lot of hand claps; it’s ambitious, eclectic even, but it works. Kimbra pouts her way through it all, her voice both immensely powerful and full of subtleties at the same time. A quick Youtube search of ‘Kimbra live’ will prove that her vocal talent is the real deal. Second track ‘Cameo Lover’ is a more straightforward, up tempo affair, yet still a solid dance-pop track with a soaring chorus which proves Kimbra as a contemporary of many popular chart acts.
Much of the rest of the album focuses on Kimbra’s vocal talent, but some tracks are lingering, really lacking in pace. After the two promising singles, the album dies a bit of an early death. ‘Two Way Street’ and ‘Old Flame’ completely lose direction, as does a pleasant if bland duet with Sam Lawrence on ‘Wandering Limbs’ – gorgeous, but empty. ‘Withdraw’ descends into an easy listening, ‘I’m-a-female-Michael-Buble’ disappointing mess. A Nina Simone cover, ‘Plain Gold Ring’ is reasonable, but a relentless hard-to-put-your-finger-on shallowness seems to permeate throughout.
‘Call Me’ and ‘Limbo’ lift the album somewhat, with bluesy, cabaret sounds, but the real treats are left until last. ‘The Build Up’ is raw, minimal, and a real highlight for me. Likewise, ‘Somebody Please’, a final hidden track, is surprisingly haunting and evocative. This is, however, too little too late. Kimbra’s thoughtful, superior lyrics are lost in bland melodies – a unique style and moments of pleasantly creative surprise are let down by tracks that belong in the soundtrack of a slightly dodgy rom-com. The middle section of the album is littered with songs that just don’t stand up; unsatisfying affairs that sound like they’re about to pick up but never do.
The creative strength of Kimbra’s contemporaries (I’m thinking Lana Del Rey, Lykke Li, Marina and The Diamonds and Florence and the Machine) mean Kimbra will have to up her game if she wants to stick around. Tracks like ‘Settle Down’ show incredible promise, but Kimbra’s Lady Gaga-esque natural vocal talent feels half-hearted without Gaga’s bold creativity and aptitude for writing near-perfect pop songs – this really shows in the middle section of Vows. Hopefully Kimbra will take a few more risks and fulfil her obvious potential with her next album, and will silence the critics who continuously compare her to other acts that she just doesn’t quite match.