Her debut release, 2005’s Most Improved Cheerleader, was a mostly underwhelming porridge of folk granola and deadly earnest balladry — but the time off has done Collette Savard some good: Despite its ominously clever title, Zen Boyfriend offers neo-folk fans and stringed-instrument afficionados a breezy batch of winsome tunes. While still uneven, it represents a significant leap forward from Savard’s debut.
As with her previous outing, Zen Boyfriend finds Savard leaning primarily on producer and multi-instrumentalist John Zytaruk as a musical foil, but this time around, the duo adds a few new wrinkles to the mix — you get some sax, some extra bits of percussion, some added backing vocals, and most notably, a few terrific cameos from violist Saskia Tomkins, whose sawing adds the perfect touch to the uptempo album opener, “Let’s Go” (download).
It’s still Savard’s show, though — for better or worse. On her debut, she had a tendency to give off a “high school art teacher at open mike night” vibe, drenching her wan ballads with an uncomfortable amount of vocal melodrama. She still wanders off the track a few times here — “The Things That You Do” brings the album’s momentum to a screeching halt — but for the most part, she shows she’s learning to let the songs speak for themselves. The lighter, more uptempo tracks are where she really shines, but ballads such as “The Back of My Hand” (download) show she can slow things down and retain a modicum of restraint.
Zytaruk, as before, contributes solid backing and appropriately low-key production, but the album’s most pleasant musical surprise is Savard’s forays into new instrumental territory — on a number of tracks, she puts down her guitar and plays a dulcimer or ukulele, offering a pleasant counterpoint to Zytaruk’s mandolin, banjo, or lap steel. She still needs some stronger material, but if her growth here is any indication, Savard’s third album should be another big step in the right direction.