It’s not often that we feature an artist on a major record label, but today is an exception with the release of a sophomore record that has me reliving my youth.
How old am I? Well, I’m old enough to remember The Pointer Sisters, Olivia Newton-John, and Sheena Easton. I can clearly recall the emergence of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson (or re-emergence in the latter’s case) and their dominance on top-40 charts. I remember when Mary J. Blige, Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue, and TLC bought hip-hop and smooth R&B grooves to pop music. Fast forward two or three decades, someone has attempted to bring all these sounds together in one album, and her name is Kimbra Lee Johnson, who goes by the singular stage name Kimbra. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that if Kimbra was around in the 1980s, Prince likely would have had Kimbra in his band or maybe even written a record for her like he did for Sheila E.
Revitalizing the pop and funk of the 1980s and 1990s is not an easy exercise because these eras had some of the most divisive music in history. You either loved or hated it, and the same could be said for The Golden Echo, Kimbra’s second full-length album. Some critics and bloggers have stated it’s “the best pop album of the year” while others have been far less enthusiastic. However, the love-hate feelings may have to do more with the complexity of the music. On the one hand, it may come across as something that is maybe too complex for some while others may say it sounds too much like what’s on top-40 radio stations these days. “90s Music”, for instance, has multiple hooks and can feel chaotic, almost frenetic, yet the repetitive electronic beats, the whirling guitars, and the overproduction might turn some off.
But as you dig deeper into the album, there are some great tracks, in particular on the ones where this is a little less production and the focus is on lifting the music of twenty, thirty years ago by adding different textures or changing melodies mid-song. The effect is a fuller, more challenging, and more expansive sound. The second single from the album, “Miracle”, for example, is fun and nearly euphoric. The chorus beckons back to Newton-John’s “Physical” combined with the ’80s R&B of The Pointer Sisters. The song succeeds because Kimbra eases back on the production, just balancing on the edge of adding one too many beats and hooks.
“Rescue Him” is reminiscent of the cool, trance-like R&B of the late Aaliyah. If you’re looking for an early ’90s Janet Jackson-like track, “Madhouse” is the closet one with its edgier funk and R&B rhythms and beats. Not surprisingly, it’s the one track where you can hear bassist Thundercat’s (of Flying Lotus) influence. It’s not as uplifting as “Miracle” or “90s Music”, but the potential for choreography on this track with the great bassline is tremendous a la Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”. It might be the one song on the entire album that people will still be talking about twenty years from now.
“Everylovin’ Ya” oozes of ’80s Prince. From the melodic funk to the wailing lyrics, this echos back to the days of Prince and The Revolution. It’s a terrific, stylish track. “Teen Heat” is another Prince-inspired tune. Like the great artist, Kimbra lowers the volume and eases on the pace, allowing her vocals to be showcased while minimizing the instrumentation without losing the funk vibe. The closer, “Waltz to the Grave”, a song about one’s vulnerability, is also Prince-esque, but this time dating to the period immediately after Prince was released from his contract with Sony Music and produced some underground funk-jazz pieces in the early 2000s. It was some of Prince’s best work in fifteen years, and Kimbra builds on the smokey approach of the living legend.
At the end of the year, The Golden Echo just might be considered the best pop album of 2014. At the very least, the 24-year New Zealand native, now Melbourne resident has created a record that challenges us how we listen and perceive music of the past and the present. It’s not just a pop album, but an experimental record that attempts to bridge multiple genres and time periods together. And for the most part, Kimbra has done so successfully, capturing the essence of pop music spanning the past four decades to create ambitious, vibrant, and fascinating album.
Kimbra will be commencing a North American tour in mid-October until early November. Check her Facebook page for dates.
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