Ontarian folk-pop songstress Basia Bulat is back on tour supporting her new album, Heart Of My Own, the follow-up to her Polaris Prize-shortlisted debut album Oh, My Darling. Bulat penned most of the album’s songs while exploring North America, Europe, and Australia during a year of incessant touring, including a stop in Montreal tomorrow. And it shows.
From the first chords of the opening track, “Go On”, the pulse of the road rolls under Bulat’s throaty vibrato, pulled along by the drums that shift between a syncopated country rhythm and martial snare rolls. The strings, banjo, and accordion expand the sound beyond a narrow country pastiche without threatening the supremacy of Bulat’s voice in the mix.
The ability to sustain this movement through 12 songs shines as the album’s greatest achievement. Bulat’s ingenuity refuses stagnation and navigates between disparate styles, weaving together dense Celtic reels like “Gold Rush” with its driving rhythms; playful waltzes like “Run”; sparser coffeehouse folk songs; boot-stompin’ country; cheekier indie rock; and organ-driven gospel – and she pulls it off without sacrificing the integration of the album.
The songs are well-written, too. Bulat eschews the insipid same-four-chord-ism that makes many albums tedious. The songs don’t cling to oversweet pop hooks, and yet you’ll catch yourself humming the melodies long after the music has stopped. Although the lyrics typically engage the perennial “Us” of unhappy love, they express a remarkable depth. The pangs of regret in the lament “Oh, how I’ve done myself in” express wistful defiance in the face of love’s self-destructive nature. Images of dusty highways, the North’s biting winds, and trans-Atlantic melancholy assert themselves with remarkable effect and never fall into routine. Every idea is sung in such earnest that one can’t help but empathize. This quality may deter some cynical folk aficionados, accustomed as they are to songs clothed in heavy irony and familiar facetiousness.
Ultimately, it is the strength of her voice that lifts Bulat above the typical pop-folk chaff. She sings with a singular versatility rarely encountered – belting out with the force of a gospel diva at one moment, and quivering with the intimacy of a lullaby at the next. Her personal investment in the songs colours her voice with an arresting honesty seldom seen in the often bland folk-pop milieu. Usually confident amidst thicker orchestration, her voice does compete at times with the accompaniment of bumptious horns in songs like “If Only You”.
For this reason, my favourite parts of the album have a tempered sonority and sparser orchestration. Her song writing excels when her voice flows through most of the sonic space, often with her humble autoharp as the sole accompaniment. And what a diverse instrument that is! The autoharp lays chords with rich warmth, growls metallic bass notes, and rings out alone in icy, bell-like precision in songs like “The Shore”. The drumming of Bulat’s brother Bobby and the romantic strings make the orchestration compelling throughout, even during the slower tracks.
Overall, Heart of My Own is a folk-pop treat. By marrying old and new influences into a consistently dynamic album, Bulat has emerged from her sophomore effort on the upswing, guaranteeing her a place in the Canadian folk-pop scene for some time.
Basia Bulat will be waltzing with her band into Montreal tomorrow evening, February 12th. The show is at L’Astral, 305 Ste-Catherine West and starts at 8:30 pm. For a glimpse of Basia, check her out on Youtube.