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Basia Bulat Makes Star Turn on 'Good Advice'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

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.  

Aofie O'Donovan Stirs the Soul on 'In the Magic Hour'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Being that we’ve reached the year 2016 in one piece (albeit if Trump has any say in the matter, things will surely crumble), it may be safe to take a brief, retrospective look at which genres were resuscitated into prominence and which ones fell from popular grace. The twenty-teens saw alternative folk enter into the zeitgeist, with Bon Iver, Mumford and Sons, and Fleet Foxes riding the wave early, before either adapting masterfully (Bon Iver), shifting genre (Mumford), or going on extended hiatus (Fleet Foxes).

Due in large part to the aforementioned bands, alternative folk opened the door for all iterations of folk music to be explored freely, a la the days of Nick Drake, Joan Baez, and Gordon Lightfoot. While genre expansions such as freak folk were fun, they came and passed with relative brevity, but as more pop and rock leaning folk emphases became passé, real roots revival folk continued to strengthen its base.

Today’s purer forms of folk are preserved by the likes of Ryley Walker, Punch Brothers, and Glen Hansard; all receiving credit where its due, but they’re obviously an all male contingency. Folk music has been a fascinating field of unidentified female talent quietly building their repertoire, with many getting the occasional glance here and there, but nowhere near the measure of fanfare a Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande may receive.

Enter Aofie O’Donovan, the Massaschusetts born folk singer formerly of Crooked Still – a pensive and familiar voice that recalls the days of yore, who ascends into contemporary folk prominence on her recently released, In the Magic Hour.

The sophomore full length release on O’Donovan’s solo discography, In the Magic Hour is equal parts quiet wretchedness and subtle charm; an overall reflection on the transcendence of time. Opener “Stanley Park” wastes no time establishing the somber nature of the record as a whole, with its idiomatic lines such as – “songbirds fly and dead is falling / I sleep to the beating of their wings” – that paint a bleak pastoral picture.

In the Magic Hour was written on the tail end of extensive touring for O’Donovan’s debut album, Fossils, in which she spent the majority of her time on the road alone, which allowed for deep introspection of lyrics. Unfortunately, the writing period for the album coincided with the death of O’Donovan’s grandfather, the Irish family patriarch, whose home in Clonakilty, Ireland became a harbor of untroubled merriment.

Following the death of O’Donovan’s grandfather, who the singer references directly in “Magic Hour,” the deep solitude that enveloped O’Donovan’s writing became the cornerstone for the album. That being said, In the Magic Hour is a disparate vehicle of coping – while the subject matter can be mostly pastoral and personal, songs are hopeful, such as “Porch Light,” or “Magpie,” with its solitary journey of reflection – the song was written about her deceased grandfather.

Folk music is bound to shift and fall victim to various trends in music, but despite whatever there is that is “en vogue,” Aofie O’Donovan will surely remain a pillar of classic folk sensibilities. In the Magic Hour is effectively a combination of O’Donovan’s penchant for seclusion and her brief moments of hopeful certainty. O’Donovan’s music searches for something of stirring substance, and in doing so, solidifies herself as a durable and formidable chieftain of folk music.