Imagine if Emma Stone was a good singer – more honey lined than husky – with the slightest of Irish sean-nos virbatto, as well as a proclivity for musical styling amalgam of Florence Welch and Natalie Merchant – or better yet, just listen to Basia Bulat. Questionable musical juxtaposition aside, Basia Bulat possesses a voice totally devoid of any real affectation, with the exception of an occasional emotional waver that’s reminiscent of a female Michael Stipe.
Part of a generational sundry of criminally underrated Canadian folk-singers, the Montreal-based Toronto native opted for a total overhaul of her usual bare bones, folk sound on her fourth full-length record, Good Advice. For someone who has spent 75% of her musical career working within the relatively restricting folk genre, Bulat has managed to incrementally progress the musicality of each subsequent release – though her narrative writing prowess remains her principal asset.
While carving out a unique role in an already over saturated market is admirable, there seemed to be an acknowledgement on Bulat’s third record, Tall Tall Shadow, that something more dynamic needed to happen.
Enlisting the direction of My Morning Jacket maestro Jim James, Bulat spent the better part of her recording time in Louisville, Kentucky; a far cry from her culturally urbane base in Montreal. Superficial metropolitan analysis notwithstanding, the change of scenery was a musically transcendent choice for Bulat.
Good Advice continues the general trend of growth in Bulat, but with the assistance of James’ production finesse, the musical dynamism ushers in a new and exciting avenue for her to lay claim to. The LP opens with the singular synth accordion heavy “La La Lie,” reminiscent of the opening of the Beach Boys’ opus, “God Only Knows,” only to break into a percussive drive as Bulat opines with great ambiguity, a hallmark of Bulat’s writing. Bulat’s lyrical preference is to skirt the line of desperation, hope, and despondence, shifting hook perspectives like “I la la lie, la la lie, keep lying to myself / While you la la lie, keep lying to yourself.” There’s an acknowledgement of apparent differences between the two protagonists within the song, with Bulat left to navigate the outcome on her terms.
“La La Lie” and its subsequent track, “Long Goodbye” are relatively similar in tone and pace. Both are slightly more developed than prior Bulat incarnations, her voice (both narrative and singing) is considerably more confident, asserting an understanding of expiring relationships. “ Furthermore, both exercise a fuller, more energetic sound, with heavy drums and synth work replacing the spacious folk sounds Bulat cut her teeth with.
Third track, “Let Me In,” steers Good Advice into more empowered territory, even despite the song’s theme of detachment. "Are you ever going to let me in without asking?" extends the sense of understanding that Bulat makes apparent in the first half of the album – coming to grips with that which is out of Bulat’s hands. “In The Name Of” is a search for purpose, an attempt to discern what influences one to continue moving forward instead of returning to what’s familiar and most comfortable.
James’ production is apparent throughout, but no more so than on the album’s strongest (and eponymous) track, “Good Advice.” James’ deft preference for glowing synth and strings sounds, building steadily on a singular bass tone while Bulat opines about her search for answers in terms of a relationship. The constant build is as constant and adroit, the eventual crescendo is almost instantaneous. The third verse is perhaps the most inventive moment in Bulat’s career musically, with her vocals not only leading the track, layering a response echo once unconsidered.
Following an almost incomprehensibly good track like “Good Advice,” it would be easy to place a less intrepid track in order to allow the listener to recover, but as this sentence conspicuously suggests, Bulat and James opted for the album’s single, “Infamous,” to follow. Placing a single in the seventh slot of a ten track record is certainly bold, but it fits the plucky, new demeanor of Bulat’s career trajectory. “Infamous” proclaims Bulat’s demands for a lover – current or past – to fully commit to coming back to her, though Bulat’s newfound confidence maintains she is not begging, stating "Don’t waste my time pretending love is somewhere else."
Through further examination, it becomes apparent that Good Advice is in fact a break-up album, though its arguably one of the most proudly valiant form of a tired concept. Lyrically, its quite apparent that there has been some degree of heartbreak, but the combination of Bulat’s inspired delivery of the lyrics and James’ impregnable production, it turns the form on its head. As an artist who has been criminally overlooked, Bulat has made a concerted effort to not only garner but also maintain the attention of many of new listener on one of the best albums released in 2016.