Kimbra: The Golden Echo (Warners)

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Kimbra: Miracle
Kimbra: The Golden Echo (Warners)

When Kimbra appeared at this year's Womad in Taranaki I observed at the time it allowed her to roadtest new material away from the prying eyes of the international -- and even local -- music media.

She wasn't quite the unusual choice that many thought for a world music festival (other mainstream pop acts have been on previous bills) and she delivered a vigorously enthusiastic set full of her eccentrically mannered physicality . . . and certainly wasn't scrimping on her costume.

Engaging and at times as impressive as it was, I had reservations about some of her new songs: they often sounded shapeless, grounded in familiar Prince-funk and some of the ideas seemed thin and stretched to breaking point.

The advance single for this album, 90s Music, remains for me weak song which never quite decides on what it wants to be but gets by on the back of the dress-up box-raiding video clip which refers to J-pop, hip-hop and Eighties video effects. The clip was the visual equivalent of the song in that regard.

Having played this album constantly for days it has finally got its hooks in me, although that short-concentration span also seems evident in material which can initially seem scattershot.

Production should be in the service of the song, but here the impression is that once in the studio the available tools were too hard to resist. While that makes for interesting headphone and repeat listening as you try to decode it, it also means the cumulative effect is an album occasionally heavy on sonic diversions drawn from P-funk, hip-hop, Prince and elsewhere.

Love in High Places for example is a terrific song but that overload of production makes it a difficult listen, and there are other places where it's like a Where's Wally? as you try to locate Kimbra herself (whose vocals sometimes get morphed and warped). 

When the focus is more refined there are real gems here, as in the Jacksons- referenced Miracle which is pure and joyous dance pop, the Funkadelic-pop of the ridiculously catchy Carolina, and I'm going go out on a limb here and say Lorde on the spare Goldmine (which is like the reference which dare not speak its name for all the obvious reasons).

You'd be ignoring the obvious if you didn't say "Prince" about some of the arrangements and backing vocals (Madhouse) which is no bad thing because she rises above and beyond those references.  

At core there are some strong songs here behind the beautifully crisp and soulful production (Rescue Him) and one of the most affecting is the piano ballad As You Are which, mostly shorn of over-production and with a disconcerting string arrangement by Van Dyke Parks, allows that remarkable talent to shine in a context some distance from what is otherwise here.

On the excellent Nobody But You (another Jackson's framed soul-funk pop diamond) she sings, "don't want to be a broken record, don't want to sing the same refrain" and there's no doubt that won't happen. She also sings "my mind is like a roller coaster" which is also true.

So this is a rollercoaster ride of styles mashed up, great songs, a sassy and smart delivery (she also has something to say and that rewards the repeat plays too) and right at the end the glorious Waltz Me To The Grave which, at seven and half minutes is her grand opus but through poetic lyrics and a sperb delivery she holds your attention the whole way (although admittedly the last 90 seconds is just a quiet sonic coda).

Although guest-heavy (see clip), The Golden Echo is undeniably Kimbra's album and quite some statement. It's just that at times you might wish for a little more restraint and someone keeping hands off the sound box marked "magic tricks and sonic effects".

No denying the breadth and depth of her talent though.

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