If Kimbra was a naive wallflower, she could easily be written off as nothing more than that girl who turned in searing guest vocals on one of the most omnipresent songs of 2012. But the New Zealand songstress, who was already popular at home, knows that Gotye’s slow-rising single is either her ticket to worldwide fame or eventual obscurity.
Fortunately for Kimbra, she’s got enough pizzazz to seize the moment. At the Los Angeles stop of her North American tour on Wednesday night, she flounced around in a fluffy skirt and treated her voice like it was a bendy straw in a chocolate milkshake. Sometimes she purred like a cabaret vixen stretched on top of a piano; other times, she maneuvered her voice into electro robo-doll territory or a particularly showy strain of R&B cribbed from early Nineties radio. Would Beyoncé have sounded like this if she’d been raised on a diet of Euro dance festivals and scatting jazz vocalists?
No matter what singing style Kimbra flirts with, she keeps her songs anchored in familiar pop, but with enough modern flourishes to tilt it in a new direction. In a live setting, her traditional backing band – drums, keys, guitar and bass – similarly grab from various decades, including Eighties New Romanticism and crunchy power chords, but it doesn’t sound quite gelled yet. Right now the laboratory is open – for better and worse.
Kimbra blew through the majority of her debut collection, Vows, with voracious but sometimes awkward energy. For a number of songs, she banged a tambourine like a just-hired backup singer looking for something to do with her hands. There was no denying her commitment to putting on a strong show – but unfortunately, she didn’t always take the nuanced approach that would’ve helped her convictions.
If Kimbra’s rendition of Nina Simone’s “Plain Gold Ring” is any indication, it seems she might suffer from the Curse of the Precociously Virtuosic Singer. She might need to enter group therapy with Florence Welch. Both women are in their 20s, blessed with powerful lungs – and unable at critical times to simply stop singing for a minute. “Plain Gold Ring” suffered because Kimbra insisted on vocalizing her every idea.
For the next four or five songs, Kimbra continued to overreach from time to time. The sequencing didn’t help, either – too many songs with the same fast tempo pummeled the crowd. But relief came with “Settle Down,” one of Kimbra’s most vulnerable hits. Standing at two mics, Kimbra recorded a vocal loop into one of them, replicating the song’s layered a cappella opening. Clearly comfortable with one of the hallmarks of her repertoire – she’s been performing the song for more than two years — Kimbra balanced emotion and restraint. The audience, who’d been merely polite up until then, rewarded her with signs of genuine enthusiasm.
By the end, she had won them over for good. One of her last songs, “Cameo Lover,” demonstrated what makes Kimbra an intriguing new presence on the pop landscape. Effervescent and futuristic, “Cameo Lover” shows that she knows how to write her own ticket – she just has to get the ground more firmly under her feet before she can take off. Next stop: Wonderland – and not a one-hit wonder.