Basia Bulat Heart of My Own

[Rough Trade; 2010]

Styles: folk, singer/songwriter, country
Others: Tracy Chapman, Joanna Newsom, Gwendolyn Sanford, Nick Drake

‘Folk music’ means different things to different people. For some, it’s the revelation of social, political, or cultural phenomena through simple and overwhelmingly acoustic musical and lyrical forms. For others, it’s merely a style focused solely on the aforementioned sound, but meandering in its narrative. In the indie music world, nearly all ‘folk’ artists fall into this latter category, with their generation-defining futuristic scope and DIY-D (do it yourself — digitally) attitude toward recording. Ontario-based singer/songwriter Basia Bulat, however — with her tendency for traditional, ethereal instrumentation and wrought introspection — treads comfortably between the two camps. Both on her spotty but endearing debut Oh, My Darling and on this year’s heart-wrenching tour de force Heart of My Own, Bulat weaves personal confession with strains of heritage and tradition.

Differentiating herself from Joanna Newsom, the contemporary artist most readily analogous to Bulat, she conveys both musical and narrative themes in contrastingly straightforward ways. This album in its sparse and lush beauty is the description of a heart, one filled with yearning and vulnerability. On “Sugar and Spice,” she laments, “Oh, I’ve done myself in.” Offering herself no consolation, she later reasons in her soaring, warbling alto, “I looked for the road/ But all I could see was the dust.” Elsewhere, “If Only You” plays jubilant horns against the futile choral plea, “If only you, you, you would take me back.” Such notions frame every song on the album and complete a portrait of Bulat that’s endearing and disarming in its uninhibited passion.

Expertly and diversely arranged, the songs of Heart of My Own build and hover, often in surprising ways. Though Bulat presents them uniquely, strains of English and Celtic folk, country, chamber, and Tin Pan Alley pop are woven throughout. Opener “Go On” begins with dusty acoustic guitar chords that break down into a Celtic-flavored reel. “Run” and “Heart of My Own” are more solemn affairs that find Bulat ruminating over her coarsely strummed autoharp. Strings and brass inject emotion into many of the album’s otherwise pensive and desolate acoustic numbers. “If Only You” and “Walk You Down” are up-tempo, rollicking songs that run contrary to the regret and uncertainty looming in the lyrics. And on “Once More, For the Dollhouse,” Bulat sounds like a honky-tonk chanteuse (read: Neko Case).

Still, as diverse as Heart of My Own is, ‘folk music’ remains at its core. With Bulat’s focus on the love she feels — whether it be for her family or her wayward companions and friends — these songs become vitally linked to personal heritage. “The Shore,” with its metronomic hammered dulcimer melody, best articulates this fragile beauty that Bulat conjures. The line “There’s no one who will take me by that shore/ Close to the smoke, far from the fire of your harbor” feels centuries old as she utters it. Here, it’s as easy to imagine her as a casualty of the diaspora looking across the Atlantic as it is to see her alone in a Toronto apartment watching the traffic roll past. Her emotions, so concisely conveyed, link craft and history. Her investment in these songs is so precise that we’re left to surmise that, had she even for a moment strayed from her yearning or ceased to understand the flawed humanity within her, this album could never have been conceived.

Links: Basia Bulat - Rough Trade

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