Tuesday, September 25, 2007

KT Tunstall: Drastic Fantastic

Drastic? Kind of. Fantastic? Mostly.

What on Earth is KT Tunstall doing? In the video for her new single, “Hold On,” the Scottish singer imagines herself as a country bumpkin, 80’s pop-‘n-lock-er, hipster chick and punk grrrl, complete with costume changes and dancing. She would put Madonna to shame when she appears as a heaven-sent angel flanked by two fierce voguers and she out-Britneys Britney when she throws on some short-shorts and shimmies her way through actual choreography. (While singing the right lyrics!)

Fans looking for the bass-drum-pounding, foot-stomping rocker in Tunstall’s breakout smash, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” might be a little confused by her reinvention. Hell, aren’t “reinventions” only for fluffy pop starlets in the first place? It almost looks as if Tunstall is – gasp! – having fun and – double gasp!! – not taking herself too seriously.

All of which is why her sophomore CD, Drastic Fantastic, is so welcome. It probably doesn’t have the breakout radio hits (“Black Horse…,” “Suddenly I See”) her debut, Eye to the Telescope, spawned. But it’s a natural progression of an artist finding her voice, committing to her rock/pop aesthetic by fully exploring it from the inside out. The songs might not be as instantly catchy as some on her first album (although “Hold On” and others come close), but it’s still a strong, consistent singer/songwriter showcase.

In keeping with the experimental tone of her new video persona (personae?), there are some fun details in this fresh batch of tracks, like the plinky-plunky sci-fi synths that introduce “If Only,” or the weird recorder that trails the chorus in the sweet, poetic “White Bird.” Sure, some sound like your typical guitar/bass/drums, straightforward rock: “Hopeless” and “I Don’t Want You Now” sound more generic after the sonic bubbles that float up in the first half of the album.

But even when Tunstall fails to thrill aurally, the lyrics compensate. While most of the topics are about either figuring out relationships or how to stand on her own as an independent woman, Tunstall clearly has a lot of stories to tell. It’s especially goosebumpy when, in “Beauty of Uncertainty,” she eschews the typical verse-chorus-verse structure for some seriously dark dwelling. The minimal, haunting ballad might remind some of Sheryl Crow (“Home” and “Riverwide” eventually came to mind), but the layered “ooh”’s and pained “aah”’s that swirl and stack into the climax are all Tunstall.

In fact, with only 4 ballads out of 11 tracks, Tunstall is like the anti-Feist. As colorful as it is overall, Feist’s latest album, The Reminder, often gets bogged down in interchangeable, piano-and-water-metaphor ballads. Tunstall, on the other hand, seems determined to keep things musically upbeat, if not lyrically. Unfortunately, 3 of those ballads anchor the end of the album, blurring together and dragging it down a bit.

Luckily, they are mostly gorgeous. “Someday Soon” showcases some of her finest songwriting to date. A seemingly simple song at first about escaping, slowing down and appreciating the smaller things in life. But as she walks by a river and contemplates nature, the lyrics take a turn for the absurd and poetic, finding entire universes to be explored in the mundane:

I’ll turn myself into the grass and I’ll grow;
Take this space above my head and live in it a little;
Gonna wear my feather headdress, like an Indian chief;
Gonna stretch out both my arms, I’m going to test the temperature.

On a track that would be thoughtless filler on a lesser album, a simple walk becomes drastic and fantastic. So, okay, as a pop starlet, she can’t really pop and lock and her dancing might be a bit forced. But listening to Drastic Fantastic, you realize Tunstall, as a songwriter and an artist, is bound by nothing. - Don Baiocchi