I won’t mince words: Kimbra’s debut album “Vows” is profoundly boring, though it shows potential. The twenty-two-year old jazz songstress from New Zealand emerged victorious in her duet with Gotye on “Somebody That I Used to Know.” While that song’s expiration date was many moons ago, there’s a chance Kimbra’s for now tolerable, inoffensive whimsy will take risks.
The album is a mix of jazz, lounge, soul, r&b and what can we call it – indie dance? – content, contained. Unfortunate because we wanted her to come away with a success all her own. We expected it. But expectations are unwise.
Remember: she was born in 1990. That she covers Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” and is auditioning as the kind of singer whose eccentricity is supported by boisterous range and talent calls for minor celebration. That she does it desperately and personality-free, so readymade to fit a commercial for online dating or the elevator at a W Hotel is, given her potential, infuriating. How can music that attempts to be larger-than-life also be so boring?
I think of someone like Feist, who’s easy to love for many of the same reasons, and secures her indie darling status. Every song a sedate lullaby, a pleasant fail-safe. Her voice can be too tranquil, skipping its way into Sesame Streets, shilling iPhones, begging your mom to turn up the volume and exclaim, “oh, I just love this tune!” Which is perfect, should you require a way to fill dead air.
Speaking of mommy jams, Kimbra does have a funky affinity with Melanie, the 60s folk singer famous for “Brand New Key” (used in an ad for a printer – the metric for success in this category: hawking technology) and “Lay Down Candles,” inspired by a performance at Woodstock. Like hers, Kimbra’s voice has a quivering vibrato which can scare and embarrass you a little, but one that could become singular and proud. She does well drawing deep from within, like Adele, another seventies-inspired siren.
Or Prince? That’s what her label wants you to think. On “Home,” that comparison can live. It’s a scaled down take, just as simmering and carefully scripted as “Sign ‘O’ the Times” or “Purple Rain” is. The problem is she’s trying out too many things here. The album is inconsistent, and if she was as weird as her voice suggests, she should own it. That’s how Prince succeeded.
Pop could always use more of the blues, but Kimbra’s phonemic awareness, warping syllables all out of shape, is what keeps her music compelling. She was fantastic on “Someone That I Used to Know,” a brusque, convincing and even reasonable one-act of a performance, proof that if “Vows” is all over the place, it can move – anxiously.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: 1990, remember? Kimbra’s good, but with time, foreseeably excellent.