Basia Bulat, while not particularly troubling the mainstream charts, has carved out quite the little niche for herself in the nine years since her début Oh My Darling was released. Her subsequent records have been intimate little chamber-pop gems, featuring quirky instrumentation like ukuleles and autoharps – fitting in quite nicely next to her fellow Canadians Owen Pallett and the early material of sometime touring chums Arcade Fire.
That’s all changed with the release of Good Advice – an unashamed pop album that sees Bulat redefining her sound with the help of My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James. Bulat has also described the album as a “break-up record”, albeit one with “fireworks and heartbreak and a disco ball”. So, more Robyn than Adele then?
While it’s not quite up to that particular Swede’s unique take on heartache, there’s certainly a cathartic feel to many of the tracks on Good Advice, with little room for wallowing. There are touches of soul, blues and gospel to be heard, but the biggest departure for Bulat is James’ production, often sounding huge. ‘Stadium-pop’ it may not be, but it certainly contains some of Bulat’s most accessible songs to date.
La La Lie, for instance, kicks off the album in a forceful, propelled manner – the heartbreak is evidenced in the lyrics (“Day and night, you need advice, don’t get caught up with me”) but the choral voices and memorable chorus means that it’s not a song to sulk to. It’s a trick that’s repeated through the album to good effect – In The Name Of is punctuated by some thundering drums, sounding like a more restrained Florence & The Machine at times, while Fool is a lovely, downbeat country ballad reminiscent of fellow Canadian Neko Case.
It all sounds so upbeat and confident that it’s easy to forgot that Good Advice is, at heart, a break-up album. Long Goodbye is punchy pop perfection – with a hint of Lykke Li‘s slinky Scando-pop – but the opening line of “tell me again that you love me” is delivered with a weary sense of ennui. Similarly, Infamous puts on a bullish, defiant front, the only hint of despair coming from Bulat’s emotional vocals.
Although all credit for this new sound should go to Bulat, it’s impossible to underestimate Jim James’ contribution throughout – the evocative Hammond organ sound on the smouldering ballad Time stands out, while the beautiful closing number The Garden is underpinned by a haunting Mellotron. It’s totally different to his work with My Morning Jacket, but equally atmospheric.
It may be her most mainstream album to date, but as ever with Bulat there’s a subversive and inventive edge lurking under the surface. Whether she’ll eventually break out of cult status with Good Advice is unclear at this point, but she certainly has the songs, and the talent, to do so.