Most play coy on their debut albums for the sake of sales and to leave favorable first impressions, but Kimbra isn't like most people. 'Simplicity' and 'expectancy' aren't words in her lexicon, proven multiple times over amid the expansive experimental compositions found on 2011's Vows. In fact, the only accessible thing about the New Zealander's debut was its introductory single, "Settle Down", and even then, she sounded like an extraterrestrial Amy Winehouse, scatting and scattering onamonapia vocal flavors about. Vows as a whole seemed like something from another galaxy, and try as might, remodeling it for US audiences the following year with more "accessible" additions still poised Kimbra as the exception to the rule of what is the current crop of receptacle-ready pop.
For The Golden Echo, Kimbra builds the same unorthodox foundation as she did once before with Vows, but round two has has her assembling new distinctive boards, slapping on even vivider colors, and creating a whole new kind of frenzied and exhilarating architecture that is almost uninhabitable, but is still quite the ostentatious showpiece that commands you to open your mind --- and open it real wide.
It's somewhat important to note that The Golden Echo grabs its namesake from the brightly yellow centered daffodil, which in turn, is interestingly named for the Greek legend of Narcissus about a man who was constantly preoccupied by looking adoringly at his reflected self in a pool of water. Reason being is that with all its stark abstractness and hard-to-chew material, one could easily write The Golden Echo off as a collection of pretentious, ego-tripping, and overproduced bullcrap.
This is true in some ways. The Golden Echo is crammed with such intricate aural and lyrical details that crave for dissection and attention that on the first cold listen, you're raising your eyebrows, saying expletives under your breath, and wondering what in heck to clamp onto as everything whizzes over and around your head. It's quite polarizing to hear all kinds of sounds layered so densely within one another and Kimbra doing some insanely Kate Bush-ian vocal gymnastics throughout that you either feel that she's sniffing herself and thinking her eau de parfum is grand, or that she's giving us what is true 'art pop', and the album dangerously teeters on these hinges.
Another element that warrants caution tape is that Kimbra has assembled an impressive roster of guest stars to assist in her surrealistic vision. Queen of the Stone Age's Michael Shuman, Bilal, Thundercat, Muse's Matt Bellamy, Dirty Projectors, Mars Volta's Omar Lopez Rodridguez, Foster The People's Mark Foster, Keefus Ciancia, John Legend, M-Phazes --- the list is long and variant. More than often too many guests can overwhelm a project and make you wonder where does the main artist fit into the equation, but in honesty, Kimbra stays vivaciously buoyant, as most of the people she's assembled are musicians and aural landscapers first, and all these guests follow her lead, her vision, as they float to the surface at notable moments, most notably the ingenious Thundercat, who is pretty much a bass playing sultan throughout this set.
At it's best, The Golden Echo corrupts the ideas of pop music in a way that is refreshingly brilliant (or horrendously damaging, depending on how you look at it...), as it indirectly highlights how mainstream pop music has become quite conservative in its construction. We're not used to such intense layering and complexity when it comes to tracks like this today, and a lot of it is an acquired taste. We were warned with the crunchy ode to youth nostalgia and its musical superstars on "'90s Music", and with its bratty electronic clap-trap the track managed to isolate listeners --- some praising it for its bold direction, and others scratching their heads over its annoying zaniness.
Still there are smidgens of accessibility. The disco dizzy of current single "Miracle" works quite well as it dons Michael Jackson's glitter suit from the "Rock With You" video and brazenly celebrates Kimbra's ability to vocally soar and the result is a rapturous affair that brings back a bit of that big pop anthem style (personally, the edited music video version is much more digestible). Then there is "Nobody But You", the easiest of the listens here, as Kimbra proves her soulful pedigree with her heartfelt croonage, making her kinfolk to former tour partner, Janelle Monae.
As you crunch and chew your way through, Kimbra is much more about showcasing her will to be more than meets the ear when she pulls out such woven melodics like "Carolina", "As You Are", "Love In High Places" and the lovely opener "Teen Heat", which begins innocently as the love affair it's describing, but it's jaunty piano slams in the chorus shape-shifting its personality. With its shades of Little Dragon, "Love In High Places" is possibly the boldest cut here as it benefits from Thundercat's snake tongue flicking bass licks, and as said before, he truly introduces himself well on this set as his intricate bass climbs are just sublime.
It's easy to also claim that this album is filled with copy and paste grooves. It's true, you've heard some of these styles before, but Kimbra enacts admirable gall to introduce new ways to hear what we've heard decades prior by assembling a multifaceted collage that doesn't cheapen or diminish her personal artistry, but rather showcases her desire to make music making an outright adventure. Each song stands as an individual idea or mood, taking on lives of their own. The excellent M-Phazes produced "Madhouse" is caught in an obvious trap of Prince's Lovesexy and Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing, while "Waltz Me To The Grave" is a Tim Burton corpse bridal march. "Goldmine" works in the heat and sweat of the '90s hip-hop chain-gang its led on, and even though it competes with itself, "Carolina" gallops across a plain of heavy percussive beats that recall the drive of even her own creation, Vows' "Cameo Lover", but positions the singer knee-deep in country fried vocality that froth up her creativity to stretch and pull her vocals like clay.
There is power in art, power in music to where its boundless, and The Golden Echo dismantles bonds and climbs out of the box assuredly so, but is it to Kimbra's detriment? That's really up to one's opinion. This album isn't perfect, and at times, it's downright messy. Songs like "Rescue Him" and "As You Are", do go on longer than one would wish, the latter benefiting from brevity due to how Kimbra expertly curls up into it. And Bilal and Kimbra make for an intriguing pair on "Everlovin' Ya", but the result exposes that the idea was better on paper than actual action.
Far from accessible the bulk of this is, but even in its faults and its flash, Kimbra's shape-shifting of her former Vows self is a genuine brave act that elevates this album from being sophomoric sludge to a cabinet of curiosities that is bursting at the seams. Acts of 'copy-catting' and its notorious cousin called 'appropriation' are the current diseases of some of today's more prevalent crop of artists that room for originality and experimentation with pop music is shown to be limited, and in a way, there's been a lot of settling for what is second best just because it's 'there'. Kimbra understands that plain ol' 'influence' --- a word we don't say often and often misconstrue its definition --- is an essential kernel to her musical craft and she upholds her influences by not pandering to them and not acting as if they are of her own creation, but rather she's celebrating them in her own way self-indulgent way, and as a result showing just how flexible music truly is.
To hear an album take a risk, any kind of risk these days, and wear its influences on its sleeve (if Kimbra wasn't paying attention to Kate Bush and Roisin Murphy it'd be startling...) is something to give a gold star for and its why The Golden Echo, while convoluted to a marring fault, is worth the effort to plow through. Don't listen to it one time, or two, give it several spins, let it marinate in the mind for a few days, don't let the pure, clearer cut rawness of Vows cast shadow as you might find that Kimbra succeeded in being the 'someone we used to know' and is now someone who we want to know more about as her artistry and sense of adventure flourishes on.
Released: August 15, 2014
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