Carol Bui – Red Ship

The only time I’ve ever seen Carol Bui perform, at an afternoon party S&S threw at South by Southwest two years ago, the first thing that surprised me upon meeting her was her size. Or lack of it. Small, no more than five-foot tall I’d estimate. Certainly strikingly attractive yet not necessarily petite. For some reason I expected her to tower over me. It must be the crushing fierceness she so confidently exudes through her music.

Red Ship is Bui’s third album. I still haven’t heard her first, 2005’s This is How I Recover, but Everyone Wore White from late 2007 was a stunner, a powerful yet vulnerable blast of smart, poetic, multilayered rock ‘n’ roll that obviously erupted from a deep, personal place. Its boldness and beauty connected with me. I had no idea where she came from (turns out it was DC) but I immediately heard an intriguing talent that warranted wider recognition.

Still based in Washington (although it’s Tacoma now), Bui’s still largely unknown. If justice prevails, Red Ship will change that. It’s a volatile, intense recording, mesmerizing in the alluring dance of its elements. Strange, unsettling violins and cellos howl and whisper like wet winds rushing through a dense swamp. The bass guitar throbs with a relentless thickness, electric guitars chop through any complacency, and the percussion…oh, the percussion!

It seems that in the time since Everyone Wore White, Bui has taken up drums and Middle Eastern dance. These interests weigh heavily on the exotic sound of Red Ship, where incessant clusters of percussive instruments thunder and flutter through every song. Played by Bui and others, riqq, doumbek, darabucca, repenique, zills, rattles, tambourines, heavy handclaps and a good old fashioned drum kit all figure prominently in the breathless swarm of beats, bips and thumps. You’ll want to check yourself for bruises once it’s all over.

Amidst all of this, Bui’s voice is an enchanting force. Multitracked, conversing with herself in the fore, center and rear, she’s spitting with rage one moment, sweeping across the heavens the next and then as close and soothing as a morning caress. Intertwined with the instrumentation, there’s a color and vibrancy that’s definitely foreign, and it’s certainly intoxicating. What are the songs about? I couldn’t rightly tell you, any more than I could tell you what “The Wind Cries Mary” is about. But they are evocative and unforgettable.

Bui has gotten some PJ Harvey comparisons before, including from me. To a small degree that may even apply to Red Ship, but it doesn’t begin to convey the scope of her creativity and vision. Maybe if Kate Bush was an Asian raised from a very young age in Turkey by a family of belly dancers and magicians and later got into post-punk, something like this might develop. Since that isn’t the case, I’d call Carol Bui fairly unique. And I’d call Red Ship the best album so far this year.

Carol Bui
Red Ship
[Ex Oh]