Basia Bulat, Foreign Fields
Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carrboro
Friday, Nov. 15, 2013

Playing Local 506 as a solo opening act last April, Basia Bulat had no new album to tour behind, though the Canadian artist offered an auspicious preview with a couple of tracks and promised to return soon. Friday, she made good on that, visiting the Cat’s Cradle’s new Back Room with a band and playing the majority of the songs on her impressive third album, Tall Tall Shadow.

Backed by a drummer and bassist, Bulat showed considerable range as an instrumentalist, rotating between autoharp, keyboards, acoustic guitar and charango (a ukulele-like 10-string Bolivian folk instrument). She also proved an adventurous composer on tracks such as “Five, Four,” in which the chorus lyrics—“first five, now four”—echo the song’s unusual time-signature.

It’s her singing and her writing, however, that resonate most deeply. Bulat’s voice is rich with personality, brimming with confidence and conviction one moment, quavering with vulnerability the next. Such expressiveness suits her material: Though her new record focuses on common themes of love and the loss of it, she brings her own emotional experiences to life with vivid lyrics on songs such as “Wires” (“Tell me when you cut the wires/ Open this heart of mine”) and “Paris and Amsterdam” (“Every time I feel myself unraveling/ I can tell myself that you’ve been traveling all this time”).

Radiant in a red blouse with shoulder-length short sleeves fashioned like bright gold leaves, Bulat engaged the crowd through her 15-song set, at times giving her bandmates a short break while she performed a couple of tunes on her own. The rhythm section increased the drama and tension on tracks from the new record such as “Someone” and “Tall Tall Shadow” (on which she was joined by the two members of opening act Foreign Fields).

On the other hand, bass and drums at times felt like not quite the right support for Bulat’s work. A rhythm section helps to ground her, but what she’s really trying to do is soar. At her heart as an artist, she’s a gliding bird, at her best when the framework frees her up rather than ties her down.

As such, she connected more directly on several of the solo numbers. “In the Night,” a highlight of her 2007 debut album, Oh, My Darling, was an intimate treasure accompanied only by her autoharp strums, as were the first two selections of her encore, the minute-long vignette “Before I Knew” and a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End.”

The advantages of a minimal approach were underscored by the opening act, Foreign Fields, a duo who used guitars and keyboards plus a few modest computer-generated atmospherics to weave beautiful spells. Bulat joined them for a song at the end, a finale that seemed more poignant on account of the Carrboro show being the last of their shows opening for her.