She rather sneaked up on us in 2005, did KT Tunstall. When she appeared on Jools Holland’s Later she was probably only known to a handful of listeners of Mark Radcliffe’s late-night Radio 2 show. Minutes after playing Black Horse And The Cherry Tree with just an acoustic guitar and Akai sampler for company, she was on her way to superstardom.
Eye To The Telescope was one of those albums that everyone seemed to have – which saw Tunstall rather unfairly pigeonholed next to the likes of James Blunt and Katie Melua. Yet such success breeds expectations, and it’s clear from the cover that a lot of money has been invested in Tunstall’s second album – compare and contrast the dressed-down figure with those infamous rainbow braces on the front of Eye To The Telescope with the glossy, glamourous, pouting pop babe clad in mini-skirt and boots on the front of this one and it’s hard to believe it’s the same person.
Thankfully, the music has remained, more or less, the same. Producer Steve Osborne is on hand again, while Tunstall’s excellent backing band do their best to beef up Tunstall’s songs. At times, she seems torn between going out flat out for commercial success – the gorgeous, soaraway chorus of Little Favour and the stomp of Hold On – or returning to her folk roots, as on the lovely minimal ballad that is White Bird.
Funnily enough, it’s this schizophrenic quality that makes the album work so well. Just when you think things are getting a bit too glossy and radio-friendly, there’s a reminder of the edge that makes her such a good listen. Tunstall’s at her best when she’s rocking out – Hold On has a bagful of energy and sass that makes it a natural choice for the album’s first single. The fact that it sounds a bit like Black Horse… doesn’t do it any harm at all.
Tunstall just has a knack of writing gorgeous melodies. I Don’t Want You Now reminds one of Kirsty MacColl, skipping along beautifully like the happiest break-up song you’ve ever heard, with a chorus of “please don’t ever let me down again” proving dangerously addictive. Don’t be at all surprised to hear this track a lot over the next few months.
Tunstall’s roots in Fife’s folky Fence Collective shine through as well. It’s not just the acoustic ballads such as the closing Celtic undertones of Paper Aeroplane, it’s in the lyrical content of Funnyman, a touching account of her friend Gordon Anderson’s (formerly of The Beta Band and now in The Aliens) mental health problems (“Locked inside your head, do you realise the things you said never made sense?”). It’s yet another song blessed with a memorable chorus, the type that Tunstall does so well.
Admittedly some of the songs, especially the closing trio of acoustic ballads, just kind of float by without making much of an impression, leading to a disappointly low-key ending to the album. Yet overall, there’s enough sparkle and verve to more than justify the expensive makeover that’s she undergone. Difficult second album? What’s that then?