In Brief: Don’t write this off as a formerly “genuine” artist going techno or something. It’s a bold artistic step forward for a talented singer/songwriter with a keen sense of rhythm.
Three years was just about enough time for the world to forget about KT Tunstall. Perhaps it was just a side effect of having this young, feisty Scottish musician release two albums in rapid succession in the States – Eye to the Telescope converted me to a fan in no time flat in early 2006, and it was followed only a year and a half later by Drastic Fantastic. On the other side of the pond, there was more of a logical gap between the first and second albums (though her big stateside hit, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”, didn’t exist in recorded form when the album was first released over there) and therefore time for KT to establish herself before throwing more songs out there into the world. But here in the states, it felt like “Cherry Tree” was everywhere, with its irresistible looping rhythms and cries of “Woohoo!”, and then for a while it felt like just about every movie, TV show, and hair care product (I may be exaggerating on that last one) wanted to show us it was hip and cool by having the words “Suddenly I see why the hell it means so much to me” blaring over the top of their ads. The second album’s “Hold On” was pretty much “Cherry Tree 2.0”, and personally I loved it in spite of that, but after that it seems like KT went from ubiquitous to scarce in terms of her place in popular culture. A three year gap between albums will do that to you. And maybe it was just my perception of things, because Drastic Fantastic didn’t quite live up to its name, veering mostly toward more congenial, radio-friendly pop-and-rock than the loop pedal-heavy, acoustic rock-meets-R&B grooves of her debut album. I wasn’t expecting a lot from her third album, and I had gone on to find a handful of other fascinating artists who could work up something special with a lone instrument and a looping device in the intervening years. Then along comes KT with Tiger Suit late this year, and let’s just say that I was not expecting what I was about to hear. Suddenly, KT’s gone all techno on us. Well… sort of.
You see, Ms. Tunstall figured out that her old pal the looping device could be manipulated in even more interesting ways than what she had explored on Eye to the Telescope. It’s not the only sonic trick she uses on Tiger Suit, but where she does rely on it, it’s used quite effectively to transform bits of percussive acoustic sounds and jangly little riffs into the rhythmic backbone of a solid set of sassy little songs. At times it’s like starting a rave at the Lilith Fair. At other times, KT’s more intimate moments, that would have been sparse and quiet on other records, glisten and sparkle with her newfound love of electronic sounds. You’re probably thinking back to other artists who have tried this to disastrous effect – Jewel‘s 0304 comes to mind – but there’s a difference here. Because I know how KT started out, performing as her own one-woman band for a while before embarking on bigger tours with honest-to-God people backing her up in real time, I can easily imagine any of these new songs being built from the ground up in a live setting without having to rely on a lot of cheap, pre-recorded tricks. Besides, I just like my music layered. I like a number of sounds assaulting me at once. So it tickles me to hear KT throw together her own danceable loops and her own backing vocals – tricks which may be a dime a dozen in any recording studio, but that I know she’s got the wit and skill to reconstruct in from of an audience. Even the few tracks here that veer toward the more conventional pop/rock of Drastic Fantastic and would probably be best tackled by more of a traditional band line-up seem like they have more bite to them this time around. It’s a win-win situation… unless you heavily favored the mellowest, folksiest songs in her repertoire, I guess. (Don’t get me wrong, I love “Silent Sea”, “White Bird”, and “Heal Over” too, but I don’t expect her to completely abandon that style on future albums or anything.)
The songwriting doesn’t disappoint here, either. KT never seems to come up short on interesting analogies. Every now and then she might go for a too-obvious pun or fall into a pothole with a metaphor that doesn’t quite work, but by and large, she doesn’t seem to want to frame stories of relationships and bummed-out friends who need a good motivational kick in the pants with the traditional language. A few tracks on Drastic might have veered into this territory, but on Tiger Suit, she’s fully acknowledged that she’s a weirdo, she sees the world in her own bizarre way, and she’s totally proud of that. It would be easy to get so bedazzled by all of the whirly loop-de-loop sounds that you miss the finer points of the lyrics, but I’m confident that even if you were to smash her looping pedal to bits and force her to perform these songs fully unplugged (which would likely involve some aggressive rocker chick-type strumming in several places), they’d still hold up well. The tricks are there to embellish good songs, not to mask bad ones. Some will take a bit of mulling over before their odd charms start to sink in. Others will amuse you from the get-go and you’ll only realize later that there’s something she’s trying to get off her chest. I enjoy that balance between entertainment which isn’t ashamed to admit it wants to make people smile, and art that wants to make them think. I can’t say that KT has fallen short in either of those departments in any major way on this album, so it turns out to be one of the few from 2010 to which I can confidently award an “A” grade. (Which is a relief. The end of 2010 looms near and I’ve found far too few of those.)
1. Uummannaq Song
“Uumannaq” – man, that’s a mouthful. (Shut up, Michael Scott.) KT has actually named her first song after a town in Greenland, where she went with several other artists and scientists on an expedition in 2008. The place spoke to her, inspiring a song that seems cold in its first seconds, with its icy keyboard drone and looping egg shaker rhythm, but that fills out into an inviting little festival, guitar licks dancing about and repeated shouts of “Yeah-oh!” comprising part of the rhythm track. It’s either about being stuck in a remote, strange place and wanting to get out and see the world, or being thankful to be in that remote, strange place after several years of being isolated in suburban safety. Either way, it kicks butt, Nordic style.
2. Glamour Puss
This is KT’s take on the life of a diva, apparently. It’s appropriately tarted up, a no-holds-barred dance track that gyrates about with a wink and a nudge. Maybe she’s taking down the pop star flavor of the month, or maybe she’s just teasing herself for letting her ego get too big from time to time. All I know it’s that it’s plenty of fun, with the thumping beats and acoustic guitar chords colliding, and a whistled tune permeating the track just to give it that extra dose of “neener neener”. The lyrics do some fun tongue twisters, like this example from the second verse: “Baby juggles fire in a blindfold/Riding a motorcycle through a hula-hoop/But it sounds like dust on your record/You’re showing the pressure of doing loop-de-loop-de-loop.” Stylistically, this will probably baffle KT’s old fans more than anything on Tiger Suit, but it’s got the same amount of sass as the less electronic, more earthy rockers she’s turned out in the past.
3. Push That Knot Away
This is a pretty simple song, offering unbridled hope to a friend facing some sort of unspecified obstruction in her life. I don’t know what a “knot” is in this case, or how it can be pushed away (though in some cases, she seems to be describing fear and saying “push that thought away”), but I can tell that KT is absolutely emphatic about encouraging her friend “Daisy” to live each day to the fullest regardless of what’s ailing her. This is all done to the backdrop of a lilting acoustic rhythm, which follows a sort of sped-up blues progression that picks up a furious dance beat midway through, before falling into a nice little electric guitar breakdown in the middle eight that changes up the rhythm a bit. Strangely, the melody of that section reminds me of the big guitar riff from “Speaking in Tongues” by The Elms, but I’m sure that has to be a coincidence.
Okay, I just know fans of Radiohead are going to cry foul when they here this one, because the heavily processed guitar melody that loops throughout this song sounds suspiciously similar to the iconic bass line from “The National Anthem”. This can’t be a coincidence. But as there’s been no lawsuit thus far, I can only assume that it’s homage (because who in the DIY music scene doesn’t like Radiohead?) And to be fair, the melody isn’t exactly the same, since Radiohead’s version had those flattened half steps and this one follows a brighter chord progression. It’s not a particularly bright song, lyrically – KT has had just about enough of a co-dependent boyfriend whose various needs and crises seem to “change every day”, and this song seems to be her way of throwing her hands up in the air and saying he’s too much of a pain in the keister for her to deal with any more. But that doesn’t stop the music from being absolutely radiant, looping acoustic guitar keyboards, and a few other elements of glimmering sound that I haven’t fully separated from one another in my mind to create a beautifully flowing song that could have been a stark ballad in an alternate universe, but that works just as it is, a fascinating layer cake of musical expression.
5. Fade Like a Shadow
The single! With its rocky attitude, its fast, feisty strumming, and KT’s quick, raspy wordplay, this seems like the ideal track with which to reintroduce Ms. Tunstall’s music to the world. It’s not the stylistic shock that so many other tracks on this record are – you could slip it into the track listing on Drastic Fantastic and it ultimately would have been a better record for it. The song sort of continues the theme of KT just being plain sick and tired of a person – he used to be the object of her obsession, but now any memory of her reasons for liking him so much have diminished, like shadows as the sun sets. I love these quick, rhythmic bumpy rides that tend to be the standouts on KT’s records, and it’s weird to me that I find this one being overshadowed (ha, ha) by the tracks around it – it’s still quite good, but it seems to be the “safer” choice, perhaps a track written before KT’s stylistic experimentation began. Don’t mistake this critique for me disliking the track in any possible way. It’s a lot of fun.
The album quiets down a bit here – momentarily, at least, as an exotic keyboard melody invites us into a more intimate song about second-guessing oneself. While “Difficulty” may be my hands-down favorite on the album, and “Push That Knot Away” the most fun of the faster, head-bobbing moments, this song is, to me at least, the emotional core of the album. You can tell that KT feels very deceived and lied to here, unable to trust her own instincts, slowly waking up to the fact that she may have been blind to a lover’s faults for many years. “I got lost following you”, she laments in the chorus. “Why did I do that? Am I an idiot?” At once, I feel a pang of sympathy for her, while I’m also amused at the way she stretches out the word “idiot” – I don’t think I’ve ever heard that word sung so beautifully. It’s here where a synthesized bass rhythm starts to sneak up on us and the song surprisingly morphs into an unusual mix of toe-tapping and navel-gazing. The purists will hate this, wondering why these sentiments couldn’t just be left to KT and her acoustic guitar. But I love it. I think the sound of it, putting her in such odd surroundings, contributes to the feeling of being far from what’s familiar, alienated from knowing and being confident in yourself. It is a sad, yet profoundly beautiful, moment that stands out to me as one of KT’s best songs.
7. Golden Frames
There’s another bluesy progression here that reminds me of “Push That Knot Away”, but darker, more ominous. This might be the only song on the album that remains low-key without ever opening up into a cathartic release. It’s not intended to – the idea seems to be making you feel like you’re being hunted. KT describes a woman trapped in some sort of a stagnant situation – she can’t shake the boundaries that keep her hemmed in or lose the eyes that keep watching her. The chorus is easy to mishear due to KT’s enunciation and odd sentence formation – “With the eyes of a bird, me/And the nose of a fox, me/I’m prepared, but I’m scared.” Putting the words “fox” and “me” together makes me think she’s singing something else. Not that that really has anything to do with anything, but there, I said it, I have a dirty mind. Let’s move on!
8. Come On, Get In
This one basically takes the template that made “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Hold On” instant winners, and lathers, rinses, and repeats that formula. That is to say, bouncy, syncopated rocker with plenty of KT’s raspy shouting that’s a blast to sing along to. She may have followed the template a bit too well, because while this is fun, it sort of feels like it’s begging to be used in a commercial for a travel website or something. It seems to really be about the freedom one finds in the positive side of life after the end of relationship, and at this point, the album sort of needed that emotional rebound. I enjoy it because it’s a textbook example of KT’s fun side and a good way to rope in new listeners (assuming they’ve been under some rock and haven’t heard the previous singles it so closely resembles), but I also think she could have done something a tad more distinctive here.
9. (Still a) Weirdo
KT honors my request for a little more distinctiveness here with a track that is dedicated to letting her quirky side show. I mean, with a song title like that, you’d better do something unusual. The entire beat of this song is KT’s own voice doing some sort of oddball, whispered beatboxing, which I love. It’s just that, an acoustic guitar, and some jolly whistling at one point just to accentuate the carefree nature of it. The lyrics seem to sum up her worldview when it comes to her career – doing things her own way even if it isn’t what others consider pretty or conventional. I love the wordplay – “Pay my lip service, keep it eloquent/Optimistic, but never quite elegant.” I like that she references letting go of a belief that getting older means growing into a “soulless static”. This reflects the future that I feared she’d have after hearing some of the more middle-of-the-road material on her previous album – it reassures me that this dull path she could have taken has been decidedly sidestepped.
10. Madame Trudeaux
KT saved the most oddball song for the end. It isn’t weird in the sense of using technology to loop things – this sounds entirely like a free-wheeling rocker that could be reproduced entirely in real time. But it’s got a jerky rhythm of 6/8, the words and melody lines start and stop in jarring ways, and a lot of KT’s lyrics are spoken, in a half-sarcastic, half-congratulatory manner as she sums up the charmed life of a celebutante whose special talent seems to be getting away with anything and everything. The attitude is similar to “Glamour Puss” for that reason – it might be a commentary on the media machine itself, but there are enough specifics running through these lyrics that I can’t help but think there’s a more meaningful story behind it. (I tried Wikipedia, as I usually do in such cases, but got nothing.) This one’s a total blast if you can handle the intentionally obnoxious tone of it. It won’t be for everyone, but that’s kind of the point with this album.
11. The Entertainer
The final song returns us to more of an acoustic mellow vibe, but not without a good dose of weirdness. Much like “Silent Sea:, this song operates on a shifting rhythm, swinging back and forth between 5/8 in the verses and 6/8 in the chorus. The way KT sings it makes it hard to catch on to this at first, since certain lines seem to “jump ahead” of the beat. (That probably makes no sense, but all I can do is describe the experience I have when listening to the song, I guess.) She describes a fascination with a person whose job it is to sing love songs, realizing over time that he seems to sing them with less and less sincerity despite his keen ability to woo an audience. This could be a veiled diss to a musician she’s disillusioned with (I really despise when people do the whole “coughNameOfSomeoneIDontLikecough” thing, but I’ll admit I’m tempted to cough out John Mayer‘s name here), or another interesting way of holding the mirror up to herself. I like how she can write social commentary like this, and yet the song won’t be devoid of loftier poetic aspirations, like the line where she describes time folding in on itself as this artist tries to turn the clock back and earn a second chance with a scorned audience. The song comes to a bit of an unresolved ending – a bit of a strange way to close out the album, but I get the feeling that this was placed last because it was meant to leave us with an important thought. A singer singing songs that he or she doesn’t really mean isn’t to be trusted. We can infer from this entire album that this is a trap KT hopes to avoid falling into.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Uumnannaq Song $2
Glamour Puss $1.50
Push That Knot Away $2
Fade Like a Shadow $1.50
Golden Frames $1
Come On, Get In $1
(Still a) Weirdo $1.50
Madame Trudeaux $1.50
The Entertainer $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.