KT Tunstall has always seemed something of a restless soul. In the last couple of years, she’s dabbled in film soundtrack work, decamped to Arizona to record an album of acoustic folk tunes with Howe Gelb and even considered retiring from music altogether after relocating to Los Angeles. The move to the West Coast seemed to inspire her though, and now she’s reappeared with her fifth studio album KIN, which she describes as her move back into ‘pop mode’.
KIN was inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac, and certainly seems like Tunstall’s attempt to write a classic ‘AOR’ style record. It’s smoothly produced by veteran producer Tony Hoffer, and each track has a radio-friendly sheen to it and a catchy chorus. Which is all very nice, but it’s disappointing news for those of us who prefer Tunstall at her more experimental.
For Tunstall has always been at her best when she’s been a little less predictable – that collaboration with Gelb, Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, was possibly the best of her career, a stark, emotionally fragile record reflecting on the end of her marriage and the death of her father, while even now, 12 years on, watching her rock up on Later… with Jools Holland armed with just a guitar, tambourine and a loop pedal to perform Black Horse & Cherry Tree still produces goosebumps.
There are no such surprises on KIN though, where Tunstall instead plays it very safe. That’s not to say it’s a disaster – there’s a fuzzy synth backdrop to opener Hard Girls which is reminiscent of Hoffer’s work with Beck on Midnite Vultures, while Evil Eye is Tunstall at her best, full of the energy and attitude that marked the early stages of her career.
The more reflective side of Tunstall is also ably demonstrated in the softly lilting On My Star, and Run On Home has a flash of anger which seems thrillingly at odds with the relentlessly positive atmosphere demonstrated elsewhere. Yet there are far too many tracks on KIN that lapse into blandness and just sound formulaic – with Turned A Light On and the duet with James Bay, Two Way, being two of the biggest culprits.
Songs such as It Took Me So Long To Get Here But Here I Am and Maybe It’s A Good Thing are catchy enough but they’re lacking the passion and energy that’s always marked out Tunstall at her best. Strangely, for an album that seems to mark a new beginning, there’s a distinct lack of focus, with too many tracks drifting by in a middle of the road haze.
Yet she’s also capable of sparking old magic, like the gorgeously warm and contented title track which is reminiscent of (Still A) Weirdo from the underrated Tiger Suit album. It’s that song – or at least its sentiment – that comes most readily to mind when listening to KIN. For it’s obviously good that Tunstall is in a happier frame of mind these days, but it would be nice to hear that she can occasionally still be that weirdo.