The past decade has witnessed a proliferation of solo female artists pitching themselves between pop singer-songwriter and folk devotee. Basia Bulat‘s 2007 debut Oh My Darling was an intriguing effort: her subtle instrumentation, fairytale themes and warm vocal excused her from occasional whimsical cliché. It was a promising start. So it is a bit of a disappointment, if far from a complete letdown, that Heart Of My Own is more of the same.
If one imagines music as a series of interconnected classifications (don’t we all, to some extent), then straddled twixt the maverick folk-influenced singer-songwriters (subsection female) to emerge in the past few years (cf. Joanna Newsom) and the mega-successful sensitive singer-songwriter types (cf. Norah Jones) there exists, in a fantasy Dewey Decimal System of music, a category of folky popstrels. Among these, Rosie Thomas and Gemma Hayes might be singled out as examples of the more interesting and innovative. Though not quite in their league, Bulat occupies a space somewhere nearby in the taxonomic hyperspace of music alongside the likes of Simone White and Rachael Taylor-Beales.
Go On opens the album with a lively box-stomping, fiddle driven, accordion-draped collision of heart-quickening folk that is yanked along by Bulat’s warbling vitriol. When she breathlessly punches out the line “They begged you for your awful words, so let them know the burden of your blues”, you feel glad you’re not the focus of her scorn. It’s a very promising start.
But Bulat suffers too often from overwhelming earnestness. On Run, the pat line “If you’re looking for the moon, is it ever when it’s new”, delivered over a scratchily strummed guitar and some bells, you could be listening to Dar Williams on an off day or, worse, Katie Melua. Bulat’s secret weapon is her voice, an oscillating scintillating contralto, but even this when framed with the wrong backing becomes a grating warble. With the excellent arrangements such as Gold Rush’s strings and If Only You’s horns, the presence of the lifelessly strummed guitar is puzzling: perhaps Bulat feels it a ticket to credibility as a musician as well as a songwriter.
Although other highlights include those with the simplest arrangement of a picked guitar, a better balance is needed. Since Bulat clearly has access to some amazing musicians and is in possession of a unique voice, she can sometimes just put that guitar down.
So Heart Of My Own, accomplished though it is, is not groundbreaking. At times arresting, at other moments it’s let down by some odd choices in the production and mixing. There is enough to hold the attention and to draw the listener back, particularly a couple of great songs and some excellent musicianship. Bulat may not have delivered on the promise of her debut, but she neither has she done anything to dampen the possibility that she may do something remarkably affecting next time.