Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Just glance at the graphically stark, two-tone cover photo from Ariel Bui’s fourth release to get an idea of the similarly stripped down music inside.
Her press release describes Bui as a “dark folk singer-songwriter.” While that certainly applies to such downbeat fare as the unembellished acoustic guitar strum that powers “Empty Casket” (“Life is just an empty casket … you know what you did and you’ll pay for it”) and the noir late night jazz underlying the country strains of “Jump the Gun” (“Ain’t no use to jump the gun/ when you know the bullet’s comin’”), it’s somewhat limiting. Bui’s dusky voice and unusual combination of countrypolitan with a shadowy, somewhat ominous and occasionally skewed approach pushes all sorts of boundaries.
Which is as it should be. The best artists take the kinds of chances Bui displays consistently in these often oblique performances. The subtly pounding Velvet Underground feel infused in “Appraisal” is as compelling as the folk of the following “Sycamore Tree.” The latter is where Bui turns up the vocal reverb against naked acoustic guitar strum as she muses on a relationship gone bad, sitting under the titular object singing “This hand would reach to you/But that won’t do,” sounding hurt yet undeterred.
Imagine a combination of Neko Case, Nico and maybe Nancy Sinatra at her most deadpan and you’ve got a vague idea of Bui’s instantly identifiable approach. Production, engineering and mixing by Andrija Tokic at East Nashville’s Bomb Shelter impeccably captures her distinctive vibe, and although the eleven songs don’t feel repetitious, there is a definite sonic thread weaving through them.
You can easily picture the “Moon Over Kentucky” as Bui tells of her love life, nearly moving to Toronto, then ultimately to Nashville where she works to pay off student loans, all set to a bittersweet melody with ghostly female backing vocals that borrow from her appreciation of 60s girl group pop (see her on-line performance of the Shirelles’ “Mama Said”). Those vocals also bring a Dan Hicks retro feel to the softly swinging “Since You Went Away” with a jaunty melody that hides the hurt of a broken heart in two hankie lyrics such as “Why did you not write or call/Like you never knew me at all.”
Although not her debut, this will be the first many may hear Ariel Bui. Judged by the unique vision and obvious songwriting and vocal talent on display, it should kick start a career that will hopefully build on this solid, impressive if low-key foundation.