Frank YangWhen you reach a certain age and/or have blogged for a certain amount of time, the years do tend to blur together some. For example, I couldn’t believe that it was just four years between when I first saw a mostly-unknown Basia Bulat playing in a little basement tavern on Rue Saint-Denis at Pop Montreal 2006 and when I saw her last, with two acclaimed albums to her name, performing with the full Symphony Nova Scotia orchestra at Halifax Pop Explosion 2010; that, folks, is some kind of trajectory and velocity. And I also couldn’t believe that that show three years ago was the last time I saw her perform, having seen her more on the streets of Toronto than any stage.
The opportunity to turn that trend around came this past weekend with three intimate shows at the Polish Combatants Hall to mark the release of her third album, Tall Tall Shadow. It’s a record presented as something of a shift, being recorded in a legion hall in Toronto rather than the Hotel 2 Tango studios in Montreal that birthed the first two albums, and incorporating more electronic textures into her heretofore traditionally folk-based sound. None of this constitutes a reinvention and on initial listens, the listener is probably more occupied with welcoming the return of Bulat’s rich vocals delivering her first new material in almost four years than any of the sonic accoutrements. But if you’re listening for them, the shift in production aesthetic does indeed distinguish Shadow from its predecessors, as does the more sophisticated phrasing of her vocals, introducing new emotional shading into her work. Given that her first album came out when she was just 23 years old, a maturing over the course of her records is inevitable but to hear it captured so elegantly without losing the wide-eyed brightness that marked her earlier work is pretty special.
For each of the three nights of these release shows, a local solo artist was tapped to open and on the Friday night I was pleased to be able to see Casey Mecija, until very recently of Ohbijou and also one half of electronic pop project Warm Myth; it was a bill that took me way back to December 2007, where it was Bulat who was opening up for Ohbijou at Lee’s Palace. Opening up with the title track of Ohbijou’s final album Metal Meets, Mecija moved between intricately fingerpicked electric guitar, grand piano, and electronic loops and samplers – her sublime vocals gliding overop them all – and her too-brief set was an excellent reminder of just how good she is in whatever project she’s working on. While it’s sad that Ohbijou are no more, we should be thankful that she continues to make art for our ears.
If there’s any sort of downside to having seen Bulat perform so many times in the early part of her career – nine times from Fall 2006 to Summer 2008, by my Flickr count – it’s that my notions of what to expect from her shows were pretty fixed. So conversely, not seeing her live for a few years ended up being all kinds of great, not least of all because sometime between then and now, she’s started playing the autoharp standing up. Not that she was just standing; she was dancing and swinging as she led her band through the new songs, an impressive vivaciousness in her stage presence to go with her giddy sweetness of old. With her, as always, was brother Bobby on drums, Holly Coish on backing vocals and also now keys, and Alison Stewart on viola; new to the mix was Ben Whiteley of New Country Rehab on bass – hardly a stripped-down lineup but a far cry from some of those early shows where she seemed to have a veritable orchestra at her command (unlike the Halifax gig where she actually did).
In the live setting, the shifts in aesthetic were more pronounced and arrangements bolder, with Bulat spending as much time on keyboards and grand piano as the autoharp and when the picked up the guitar, it was an electric (semi-hollow; thanks) run through an actual pedalboard. This wasn’t in an attempt to “rock” – though I’ve never wished I’d brought earplugs to one of her shows before this one – but to have the tools to properly explore new territory. All little things, maybe, but nigh-unimaginable a few years ago and now perfectly reasonable.
Of the new material, Shadow closer “From Now On” received an especially gorgeous treatment, with Bulat on grand piano and Whiteley and Coish on backing vocals, topped only by the record’s emotional centre – the stark “Never Let Me Go” – in which her powerful voice was lifted by four-part harmonies to close out the main set. Many of the older songs were made fresh with re-arrangements and re-contextualization: on grand piano, “I Was A Daughter” sounded from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past tense than a girl in the moment, while “Heart Of Mine” was completely re-cast with synths, drum pads, and vocoder for the moving parts. The encore brought things back home, though, with the hammered harp of “The Shore” perfect as is, and joyous “Before I Knew” a sublime show closer. Well, almost – the sight of Bulat standing onstage, wide-eyed and hands over her mouth before a standing ovation, was just that much better.
The Grid, The Globe and Mail, JAM, and The Huffington Post all had conversations with Basia about the new record and release shows.
Photos: Basia Bulat, Warm Myth @ The Polish Combatants Hall – October 11, 2013
MP3: Basia Bulat – “Go On”
MP3: Basia Bulat – “Gold Rush”
MP3: Basia Bulat – “In The Night”
MP3: Ohbijou – “Anser”
MP3: Ohbijou – “Mossy Lungs”
Video: Basia Bulat – “Tall Tall Shadow”
Video: Basia Bulat – “In The Night”
Video: Ohbijou – “Niagara”
Video: Ohbijou – “New Years”
Video: Ohbijou – “The Woods”
With the release of Flying Colours as of today, CBC Music has turned the reins of their website over to Shad who is blogging up a storm with readables. And if you’d rather hang with Shad in meatspace, remember that he’s playing an in-store at Sonic Boom in the Annex tonight at 7PM, has a sold-out show at The Opera House on October 19, and returns to the Danforth Music Hall on January 31.
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan have made another new song from their second album Uzu available to stream via Pitchfork, and also recently stopped in at the CBC for a Q video session. The album is out October 29 and they’ve scheduled a date behind it at The Garrison for November 6.
Stream: Yamantaka//Sonic Titan – “Windflower”
DIY has details on a new EP from No Joy entitled Pastel And Pass Out, which will be out on November 4. One of the new songs from the release is available to stream below.
Stream: No Joy – “Last Boss”
Beatroute and The Ottawa Citizen interview The Sadies about their latest album Internal Sounds. They get external with them at Lee’s Palace on November 15.
Dears frontman Murray Lightburn talks to aux.tv and The Toronto Star about his solo work.