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Somebody That You Used to Know: It’s Kimbra’s Time to Shine on ‘The Golden Echo’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Label: Warner Brothers Records

New Zealand-born songwriter Kimbra Johnson’s success as a solo artist has stemmed from her stylistic diversity. While her 2011 debut Vows exhibited a dizzying repertoire of jazz and R&B-inflected art-pop, she meddled with it even further for its stateside reissue, shortly after her vocal chirps showed up here on Gotye’s inescapable “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Bundled with six extra tracks, Vows‘ re-release was fractured and fractious—a promising start for the Australian-based songwriter. It’s bested, at least in stylistic unity, by her sophomore effort, The Golden Echo.

With a hefty guest list that includes the likes of Muse’s Matt Bellamy, Matt Chamberlain of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Michael Jackson associate John “JR” Robinson, and Flying Lotus’ right hand man Thundercat, The Golden Echo is intended as a star-studded statement to vault Kimbra from Gotye’s immense shadow. But rather than make a colossal push for the top of the charts (as a couple of writing credits from Foster the People’s main man Mark Foster might suggest), Kimbra leans on Thundercat’s nimble bass contributions to double down on the psychedelic suggestions that Vows only hinted at.

A clattering snare drum ripped straight from the Dirty Projectors’ lopsided playbook heralds the creeping astral plane explorations of “Love in High Places,” which falls in the latter third of the record’s 12 tracks. Kimbra delivers pitch-perfect multi-tracked vocal harmonies throughout, but despite its Expendables-esque cast of proven contributors, The Golden Echo is much more about imperfection and imbalance. On “Nobody But You,” another song that relies heavily on Thundercat’s rubbery bass guitar vamping, Kimbra bounces in and out of the track’s elastic groove, creating an intensely human take on the soul and jazz signifiers that she holds so close to her heart.

Occasionally, however, the record offers up a space-jam too antiseptic for its own good. On the Bible-thumping “Rescue Him,” which enlists Empire of the Sun’s Surahn Sidhu for writing help, Kimbra veers a little too close to her collaborator’s sterilized synth pop, falling off the biotic grid that persists elsewhere. Even at her best, Kimbra sometimes allows the kaleidoscopic synth work to overwhelm her melismatic vocalizations. But on moments like the nostalgic lead single “’90s Music,” she gleefully rides the locked-in instrumental, bobbing and weaving to give the track the sort of off-kilter romanticism that marks The Golden Echo‘s high points.

When listening to The Golden Echo, it’s important to remember how easily it could’ve gone differently. Hurled to the forefront of the pop consciousness thanks to a chart-topping hit, this Kiwi weirdo was forced to make a decision: bow down to the Billboard gods or embrace her inner nature sprite and do whatever it was she wanted. Though its list of guests may suggest a hedge, Echo largely hews to the road that’s less heavily trod upon. Robert Frost might tell you that it doesn’t really matter what course you actually end up taking, but he never had a chance to make a major label pop album with a virtuosic, DMT-referencing jazz bassist now did he?