- - Monday, May 21, 2012

Vows

Kimbra

Warner Bros.

★★★½


Americans know her as Gotye’s duet partner, the big-voiced siren who sang about heartbreak and jealousy on “Somebody I Used To Know.” Now, with that supersized hit still topping the charts here and abroad, Kimbra brings her solo career stateside with “Vows,” an album originally released in New Zealand last summer.

Saying that Kimbra rode to the top of the charts on Gotye’s coattails isn’t entirely fair. “Somebody I Used To Know” was a team effort, as reliant on Gotye’s sharp, savvy songwriting as on Kimbra’s guest vocals, and she proves her own writing chops on this debut album, which features her byline on 10 tracks. She also keeps thing deliberately eccentric, mixing a fondness for melody with arrangements that draw equally from R&B, Broadway, ‘80s pop and jazzy lounge music.

To answer the most obvious question, there’s nothing as accessible or inescapable as “Somebody I Used To Know” on this record, which sometimes seems too unorthodox to attract the same degree of attention as the Gotye collaboration. “Vows” charms in other ways, though. Motown and electro-pop influences dovetail on “Cameo Lover,” the album’s most obvious candidate for a radio hit, and the album’s breakneck pace decelerates to a smoky, sexy crawl on the soulful slow-jam “Withdraw,” which take its cues from Whitney Houston and D’Angelo.

Every song is a mixing pot of genres, with Kimbra’s voice being the only common ingredient. It’s a chameleonic instrument, able to produce a quirky, poppy coo one minute and a heartfelt R&B wail the next, and it helps anchor the album, keeping everything stable whenever Kimbra’s own adventurousness threatens to capsize a song.

At 22 years old, Kimbra is a full decade younger than Gotye. Her grasp on pop music is seriously rare, though, making her less of a fresh-faced newcomer and more of a grown-up child prodigy. Producers Francois Tetaz, M-Phazes, Michael Tayler and Jimi Maroudas deserve recognition for layering every song like a $1,000 wedding cake, piling zippy keyboards and multitracked vocal harmonies into heaps of sweet, sugary sound. Still, this is the Kimbra show — and it’s worth the price of admission.

Bloom

Beach House

Sub Pop

★★★

With their wintry, atmospheric sound, Beach House’s songs don’t exactly evoke memories of summer afternoons and sandy coastlines. Instead, they conjure up a different sort of waterfront dwelling, the kind of windswept place that gets abandoned after Labor Day, when chilly water and plummeting temperatures start driving all the tourists away.

If that image sounds depressing, let’s backtrack a bit. Beach House’s music is filled to the brim with a haze of ambient synthesizers, hypnotic guitar riffs and leisurely drum machines, and vocalist Victoria Legrand wraps her voice around those instruments like a long strip of gauze. The songs don’t depress the listener as much as lull him into a dreamy half-sleep, punctuated by the band’s bright, sparkling choruses.

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