photo and review by Chance Solem-Pfeifer
Fans have seen many contraptions in Basia Bulat’s hands since her 2007 debut: acoustic guitars, ukuleles, her notable autoharp, a small-bodied, giant-voiced Peruvian instrument called a charango.
But some times Saturday night at Doug Fir Lounge, the Canadian singer-songwriter brandished only a microphone, and the unfamiliar look is indicative of the pop tilt to her fourth album Good Advice, out earlier this month on Secret City Records. Of all the ways you might describe the evolution of Bulat’s songwriting away from the bright, bucolic folk of her first two records, I’d offer that she now writes lead singer music. Her voice, always prone to flight, now hangs to keyboard-centric melody lines in news songs, like “Infamous,” “Fool,” “Long Goodbye” and “La La Lie.”
In those instrument-less moments on Saturday, she danced in a half-circle and looked to command the stage, even if the instinct to do so appears slightly contrary to Bulat’s natural temperament. And she brought four players to the stage to replicate the size of her new, Jim James-produced album. That included the members of the Toronto three-piece The Weather Station.
To open the show, the trio offered rainy folk devoted to frontwoman Tamara Lindeman’s lyrics. Meditations on the communicative and anti-social aspects of love waxed and waned in their alternate tunings, guitar picking and withheld percussion. Though Lindeman joked halfway through about being compared to Joni Mitchell (on the superficial basis of blonde women playing folk music), Mitchell is perhaps the readiest comparison to Lindeman’s songwriting in the way the latter’s remarkably rangy voice seems to find outlying notes you didn’t initially know were in the song’s primary chords. Try also, her ability to kill a song upon one vulnerable line. Standout “Came So Easy” stops on a dime with: “You came uninvited with a jar of your parents’ honey.”
The trio’s strongest point was that light touch, the chorus-less existence of songs as correspondences that could start and end anywhere.
That’s increasingly not the feeling in Bulat’s work, which relies more and more on a hook and a chorus, usually one that’s cleverer than the average chorus, and usually one that feels affirming even when it’s about self-deceit or being stranded on the front porch of someone else’s life.
As the Doug Fir stop was just the second night of her current tour, the new songs felt youthfully energetic and not completely without kinks in some strange moments of imbalance between dual keyboards, electric guitar and three supporting vocals. With the record still less than a month old, the crowd wasn’t averse to swaying but appeared most at ease in Bulat’s older folk tunes, especially the deep, minor “Heart of My Own” which swelled up from full drum and bass hits and mid-fretboard guitar jabs. As was the case in her 2014 tours, “It Can’t Be You” — for which it seems Bulat is only bringing her charango across North America — was still the night’s vocal standout, blowing the singer’s falsetto to the rafters over an ornate and exposed picking part.
It’s certainly her distinct voice that makes translations to bouncy pop so possible, warbling through four, six, eight notes in a run.
When she disappeared into the crowd for extended segments of her closer, “Wires,” and sang into a echoing instrument mic, the larger experience was surrounding. Having donned the gold, sequined half-cape from her album cover, these bright visual and sonic colors made the bandleader simultaneously more and less visible. Bulat bantered repeated on Saturday about loving the crowd, loving the unexpected sold-out show 3000 miles from her home, with all emphasis on “love” as a personal force, not an expression of approval. The spectrum through which she can profess that love grows and grows.