Album Review: Basia Bulat – Heart of My Own

[Rough Trade / Secret City; 2010]

The distinctive quality that Basia Bulat has with her music on Heart of My Own is not the fact she’s now favouring an autoharp instead of a guitar or that she’s still skimming across styles. Instead it remains her full, ever so slightly worn, warming and welcoming voice. It boasts a quality that makes it hard to cast her aside. On Heart Of My Own it’s once again centre stage, even shadowing the fuller instrumentation she’s beefing her songs up with.

But it’s odd though, as I never really find myself listening to Bulat’s lyrics. Rather, it seems I’ve become more familiar with the way she spreads notes out, like a tablecloth on top of the cutlery of instruments. On “Sugar And Spice” when she sings “Oh, oh, oh, how I’ve done myself in,” the effect comes from the nuance and the lift as opposed to the words she is singing. This said though, you would thus be lead to think that when she strips away the music, her voice soars to the best of its ability, being even more central. However, this is only somewhat true as I can’t help but be most impressed when she’s got a dizzying rush of drums, strings and guitar behind her like on “Gold Rush” where her voice helps build and sustain the momentum. When the tracks stops for a break, you would expect the drum to keep the underlying pace going but instead the faint notes of the autoharp and her voice carry the song to its final climax.

On her lighter and gentler numbers such as “Sparrow” the voice is accompanied by nothing more than a ukulele, but strangely I don’t find myself as captivated as I feel I should be. Even when these acoustic numbers are sprinkled with pleasant backing from some strings or a brushed drum, the effect isn’t greatly heightened. They work elegantly beside her voice but they don’t bring it into focus.

But one of the most impressive turns from the album is actually a bonus track and a cover of the Bedouin Sounclash song “Hush.” It consists of nothing more than Bulat in a room on her own, singing, clapping and tapping her feet for occasional percussive effect. The result is overwhelming and impossible to listen to passively; it demands your attention and captures her vocal talent at its most stripped down and, debatably, its best ever on record.

Severe concentration on vocals aside though, the album has a number of great tracks and one of these is the opener “Go On.” Once again it has drums rallying everything together before it cracks open and a banjo and strings come into the picture and you’re swept away. “Run” manages to maintain your attention with a surprisingly effective chorus. The effect comes from having Bulat paired with a choir, but instead of smothering her like any other pop song might do, it allows for her voice to soar. On the title track to the album, she creates a sense of unnerve; the banjo, the strings, guitar and, once again, choir all seems to equally meld and juxtapose each other making for a listening experience that can differ each time depending on what you focus on (perhaps best described in her own words in the song, “I never know where the shadows are these days”).

I’d happily say that Heart of My Own is a step up from Oh, My Darling. Her debut was invitingly enjoyable and worthy of the Polaris Music Prize nomination is got, but some of her ideas seemed almost half baked at times, like we were only hearing half the song. On Heart of My Own the focus is evident and it’s much more accessible and easier to enjoy as a result. As a whole, my only real qualm with it is that at times it can feel a little one-sided. Songs like “Go On”, “Run” and “Gold Rush” create such an impressionable effect that everything after the first half seems somewhat timid in comparison. Penultimate track “Walk You Down” doesn’t have the same punch as those at the start of the album, and placed where it is it seems like a last ditch attempt to recapture the attention of the listener. But no incentive is needed really because the let down from the first half’s exuberance is a congenial continuation, slowing down the action to a pleasing halt. When elegant tracks like “The Shore” are there to help us drift along in the more calmed haze, I’ll happily take the ride and wait until it stops before I get off.