BASIA BULAT with BARZIN and HABITAT at the Drake, January 4. Tickets: $7. Attendance: 160. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
There's a fine line between sweet and cloying. Or endearing and irritating, for that matter.
Those idiosyncratic quirks that charmed at the beginning of a relationship start grating on your nerves when things go sour, and even the most adorable pet name can make you barf as often as it melts your heart.
All of which is to say that artists who work the cute angle have to be clever.
They should look to the fine example set by Guelph-based keyboard pop duo Habitat, who led a hat trick of feel-good acts at the Drake Thursday night.
Though John O'Regan (D'Urbervilles), who shares synth and singing duties with significant other Sylvie Smith (Barmitzvah Brothers), could not mask his gaze of utter adoration whenever he glanced at his girlfriend, the shuddering pulse of the pair's iPod-driven beats, dissonant chords and sinewy swerves of melody kept Habitat's set from feeling precious.
Instead, you actually felt a surge of joy that two musicians so perfectly suited had collided. The interplay between O'Regan's winsome falsetto and Smith's dark, rich alto helped propel Habitat's textured tunes. And the subtle edge to their lyrics - call-and-responses about drinking excursions and lines on pavement - added depth.
That edge was missing from Barzin's subsequent set. The singer/songwriter radiates a Zen-like positive energy that betrays his roots in the community-oriented Guelph scene, and he delivers his airy ballads about true love with genuine emotion.
But despite the solid, if staid, electric guitar and vibraphone backing his soft acoustic strumming, it was hard not to feel restless after the third or fourth song about the "dark queen" who rules Barzin's heart - especially when his stories about her followed the same melodic progression.
Headliner Basia Bulat, on the other hand, had all the elements of a too-cute set-up working against her. A pint-sized spitfire with cornsilk hair who could play the younger sister of Dawson's Creek's Michelle Williams, the London (Ontario) songstress performed with a full ensemble including penny-whistle-styled flute, string instruments (de rigueur for any aspiring indie pop sissy) and a ukulele.
Even if she didn't have the talent to back it up (she does), Bulat's brash, delightfully flighty stage presence would have tempered the threat of sugar shock.
Between moments of surprise that folks were actually laughing at her dorky jokes, Bulat confidently delivered diverse songs that ranged from country-soul rollers that inched toward Sam Cooke territory to fragile autoharp folk to retro bop-sh-bop pop buoyed by interactive clapping.
While her judicious use of different backing elements was impressive, the best part of Bulat's set was her remarkable, throaty voice. The singer's almost viscous, full-bodied vocals shifted to suit her disparate songs.
You'd have no idea of her versatility based on Bulat's self-released EP, which was proof to me that production can make or break a disc. Let's hope she keeps that in mind as she prepares to release her debut LP for Rough Trade this spring.