Canadian singer/songwriter Basia Bulat created something of a stir within the folk community when her 2007 album, Oh, My Darling, dropped to considerable acclaim. Equipped with an emotive voice and some dazzling capabilities on the autoharp, the tender intimacy of Bulat’s debut helped her to garnered not only a record deal with Britain’s Rough Trade label, but also a nomination for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize. Her second full-length arrives after more than a year of nonstop touring across three continents. Life on the road typically arouses some creative sparks, and Bulat – whose smoky and soulful singing recalls both Tracey Chapman and Diana Krall – is no exception. After logging countless miles and taking in gorgeous vistas ranging from the Nevada desert to the Smoky Mountains, it was the vast wilderness of the Yukon that struck her the most deeply.
The resulting LP, Heart of My Own, retains this sense of wonder but also one of wanderlust; there’s plenty of inspiration to be found in nature’s scenery, but there’s also a sense of soul searching and aimless wayfaring that comes with intercontinental travel. The confessional overtones of Bulat’s music are still evident on this latest record, but the immediacy is less potent this time around, thanks to an arsenal of orchestral instruments and lush production by Howard Bilerman that ensure a more layered listen.
A newfound sense of aplomb can be heard on opening cut “Go On.” Built on the snap of military-style drumming, the song’s intensity rapidly grows as banjo and violin thicken a texture that was begun by a solitary acoustic guitar and the quaver of Bulat’s voice. Despite its begging pleas (“Keep running back to me”), “Run” operates in similarly bold fashion, with anxious tambourine rhythms and see-sawing string harmonies that set the stage nicely for a chorus where the whole band is galloping on top of Bulat’s yearning vocals.
Other memorable moments include the chamber pop of “Gold Rush,” and the imparting tone of the title track, where Bulat’s admission of deviant behavior (“I’ve been false and I’ve been untrue”) resonates almost as much as the expert banjo playing and heavenly wordless background vocals. For all of the embellishments and add-ons that the album offers – “If Only You” and “I’m Forgetting Everyone” both feature use of the trumpet – it’s the austere beauty of a track like “The Shore” that shows Bulat really branching out. The autoharp that opens the song threatens to send things in the direction of Coldplay’s “Life in Technicolor,” but Bulat never indulges with extra layers of sound as she does on so many other tracks. Cool and effervescent, there are lots of suspended harmonies that oscillate across the mix with all the space left by the lack of additional instruments. Though the track suggests a high level of ambience, it also maintains an earthy folk quality thanks once again to some stellar backup vocals.
Heart of My Own never finds a comfortable groove, but given that most of it was written on the road, the unsettled tone might’ve well been deliberate. It’s an album unlikely to reign in anyone who’s on the fence about adding a folk album to their catalogue, but sure to delight those who like their melancholy sentiments sung by a voice that is as dexterous as it is vulnerable. If you can call yourself even a casual fan of female singer/songwriters such as Jenny Lewis or Natalie Merchant, this might be just the thing for your next epic roadtrip.