Basia Bulat – Tall, Tall Shadow | Album Review | By Volume

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Basia Bulat

Tall, Tall Shadow

“First five, now four…”

Comments (1)
Author: on October 26, 2013
8.5
Secret City
September 30, 2013

It seems that for Canadian songstress Basia Bulat, the decision to drop out of university and use her remaining student loan money for the recording of her debut album will turn out to be a fruitful one. With the release of her third full-length, Bulat appears to be knocking on the door of a true breakout hit. In 2007, she released Oh My Darling to modest praise and critical acclaim, even earning a coveted Polaris Prize nomination. Not fully satisfied with the result, she came back in 2010 with a more focussed and direct piece of work, the Juno-nominated Heart of My Own, and it became perfectly clear that Bulat was anything but another singer/songwriter to get lost in the oversaturated scene. Her soaring vocal work, dynamic range, and multi-instrumental talents caught the attention of casual fans and started to propel her still small body of work towards the direction of greatness. These talents have since been further refined and expanded, her newest album sounding like her most complete and well-executed work yet. It overflows with maturity and artistry, but most of all, it overflows with heartbreak.

Tall Tall Shadow was recorded immediately following the loss of a loved one. It was half-finished before this tragedy in fact, but what had already been written was scrapped and restarted from scratch. One of the things that makes this album so special is the heart wrenching honesty to be found within the lyrics. You can feel her commitment to the album’s theme in every track; the lyrical tone always walking the fine line between devastation and hope. The title of the album helps to paint the picture a little bit here — Tall Tall Shadow is meant to give an image of light and dark; it intends to illustrate the interdependence between the two. “A shadow only exists with light, right? So you need both. And they’re both there in every song”, she said in a recent interview, and how true that is. Bulat seems frustrated throughout most of the album, desperately trying to come to terms with the premature death of a close friend, caught in an ocean of despair and yet aware of the joy still within her grasp. The best example of this probably occurs during the track “Someone” where Basia Bulat cries out for her lost friend, through a veil of restrained optimism: “Are you lost when I know / someone, someone is there?” she questions, as “shadows and stairs” are behind her and “someone calling your name” that is bound to find her. Yet she still presses on, curious even in the face of her fear: “give me your answer kindly / someone, someone is there / if you are lost come find me.

Where Heart of My Own was punchy and immediate, Tall Tall Shadow is more subtle and pensive. It doesn’t seem to have the same replay value as her previous album on first glance, but it’s one of those special pieces of music that worms its way into your subconscious after repeated listens. The opening track doesn’t gallop along quite as enthusiastically as “Go On’”, the excellent first song from her previous album, but this lack of an immediate jolt of energy is substituted with something arguably more important: restraint. This is not to suggest that the high energy of her previous work was a negative in the slightest, but it seems here that Bulat is more comfortable than ever to allow her lyrics to do one hundred percent of the talking, using the instrumentation to enhance the tone rather than define it. For an artist with such incredible lyrical strengths, it only makes sense that she would reach a point in her career where the focus is firmly placed on her powerful words.

But constructing the right sound upon which to deliver these words is a delicate ordeal to be sure, and perhaps this is why she chose Tim Kingsbury (formerly of Arcade Fire) and Mark Lawson (a Grammy-winning engineer The Suburbs) to handle the production. The tracks are built to bring the focus to Bulat’s angelic voice and reinforce the sometimes bleak, but often buoyant tone of the album. Of course, a woman of her talents would not be described as simply a vocalist. While the voice is definitely the focal point, Bulat’s many skills intermittently take the spotlight. An array of instruments are used on this LP, including (but not limited to): the standard guitar, piano, synthesizer; and also some less orthodox choices such as: autoharp, charango, and wurlitzer. All are capably handled by the talented multi-instrumentalist, who had already proven herself in this regard from the very beginning. The unique instrumentation is used cleverly, in combination with Bulat’s vocal and lyrical prowess, in order to convey some sort of interconnectivity between pain and joy.

The opening song and title track bursts with a sort of reserved jubilation, like she wants to experience happiness, but is frustratingly caught up in despair. “You cannot run away when you know that the tall, tall shadow is yours”, she tenderly sings with subtle tinges of pain flickering across her voice. As the simplistic piano chords begin to gain company (a high-hat, some strings) her voice begins to gain power and emotion to match the heightened energy of the song. The next track, album highlight”Five, Four”, begins with some quiet fingerpicking as her pained voice takes the spotlight. The song eventually builds to an absolutely stunning intermixture of noise in which Bulat delivers one of the year’s most entrancing and beautiful vocal phrasings of the year. Her voice is layered multiple times and set in front of an almost jarring, yet somehow still entrancing guitar line. Most of the remaining songs to be found here offer something similar: a raw, honest lyrical message expertly paired with a soundscape constructed to enhance her message. It is meticulously executed, and is still delivered in a way that sounds fresh and spontaneous.

In the end, Tall Tall Shadow will probably not go down as Basia Bulat’s most immediately satisfying piece of work, but it stands the chance of being declared her most brave and natural. Bulat lays her soul bare here with the sort of conviction that her previous albums flirted with but never fully accomplished. It was also recorded using a free-form approach, and it really shows. “I wanted to restart and really not hold myself back in the singing and the writing and just see what might come out” she recently said, and this seems to have been for the greater benefit. Sorrow oozes from each track, from every tortured verse to every soaring chorus. And yet within a devastating story of personal loss, there exist flashes of hope and optimism, for without light there can be no shadow. Though the shadow towers over her, the light is occasionally reachable if not entirely understandable.

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  • James Walker

    I usually dont comment on websites! But I heard Basia sing on NPR. Your voice is the most beautiful I have every heard. Almost a celtic sound , its hauntingly familiar but so out of my grasp. Ide love to sing with you sometime. And it will forever be my dream….simply beautifull.

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