Music Review: Scottish singer K.T. Tunstall eloquently contemplates mortality on new album
K.T. Tunstall, “Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon” (Blue Note)
“We are fighters in our prime,” K.T. Tunstall sings to her father on her new album, and the words resonate with poignancy now that he’s gone.
“Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon” focuses on the death of Tunstall’s dad last year, and from her sorrow sprung perhaps the best set of songs yet by the Scottish singer. She recorded the album in Arizona, where the stark desert landscape depicted in the cover art perfectly matches the musical mood.
Tunstall finds beauty amid the bleakness, and her intimate alto eloquently expresses her emotions as she contemplates mortality. Co-producer Howe Gelb provides graceful support with sparse but distinctive wow-and-flutter arrangements.
“We’re all made of glass … with one eye on the clock,” Tunstall sings in “Made of Glass,” and there’s comfort in her candor. The songs are neither sentimental nor heavily spiritual, although the final composition offers an epitaph for her father as a choir swells, singing with angelic fervor at the end about the end.
video/click here: KT TUNSTALL TALKS ABOUT HER NEW RECORD and working with Howe Gelb
Tiny Mix Tapes/Chocolate Grinder reviews Howe Gelb’s solo record
By M RUBZ on Jul 17 2013
Howe Gelb is one of those artists who perfected a particular style early in his career, and despite releasing consistently solid records for decades, his work often goes unnoticed because it doesn’t follow trends or vary too radically from his initial sound. However, this doesn’t mean that Gelb’s releases aren’t extremely eclectic and varied. For instance, one can find solo piano works, collaborations with Spanish gypsy groups, desert-tinged noise rock, and full-lengths with a backing gospel choir among many many other things in Gelb’s discography. These styles may seem radically juxtaposed at first, but part of Gelb’s talent as a songwriter/performer is largely in making these seemingly disparate genres fit in perfectly with his aesthetic. Part of the reason for this is that many of these styles are embedded in Gelb’s sound to begin with, and with each release, a new element often comes to the forefront. It’s for this reason that Gelb’s stylistic explorations don’t seem as radical as, say, David Bowie, and perhaps this is why his records don’t always receive the critical attention they deserve.
Dust Bowl is Gelb’s latest record, and unsurprisingly it’s another excellent synthesis of Gelb’s influences with the stylistic framing of spare folk arrangements this time. This is perhaps one of Gelb’s sparsest records since his late 90s lo-fi releases for V2. However, the bareness of the production here allows the listener to see how Gelb’s raw musical material can serve as a stylistic melting pot even without the clever production of many of his Giant Sand releases. Dust Bowl features everything from the country blues of “Porch Banjo” and “John Deere,” to the jazzy piano ballads like “The Old Overrated” and “Reality or Not,” to the deconstructed desert pop on “Forever and a Day” and the fragile “Man on a String.” All of the material is undeniably Gelb, and as a result, these stylistic deviations are almost imperceptible, but they’re there. The fact that Gelb can create such a spare album that still manages to conjure up a number of styles is a testament to his prowess as a songwriter. It may not be a huge departure from some of his other work, but Gelb excels with subtleties, and Dust Bowl is another superb variation on his signature sound.
THE SUN (UK) June 21, 2013
I love the pause when you turn a record over
WHEN sweet-voiced Scots songstress KT Tunstall appeared in 2004, she enjoyed massive mainstream success.
Her debut, Eye To The Telescope, was filled with radio-friendly, hook-laden songs and so much promise.
But only through joining up with one of music’s great outsiders has the 37-year-old made her best album to date.
Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon — emotional, poised, exquisitely sung — represents the full flowering of her considerable talents.
Her fourth studio album was produced over two sessions in Tucson, Arizona, by Howe Gelb, an eccentric, fiercely independent soul known for his band Giant Sand and a wide variety of solo projects.
It emerged from a period of turmoil for KT during which her marriage broke down and she lost her father, yet the music has a calm, beguiling quality that perfectly showcases her vocals.
Here, exclusively for SFTW, KT tells the story of her album, which entered the charts at No14 last Sunday.
Can you explain why the album is split into two distinct halves?
The album was recorded in two ten-day sessions, one in April 2012, and the second in November 2012. I didn’t plan to split the record in this way, but I experienced huge changes in my life during the summer in between, part of which was losing my father.
By the time I went back, I was in a very different place, and the material I wrote felt distinctly different from the first session.
I had also enjoyed listening to vinyl for the past couple of years, and I love the pause when you turn the record over, and how, as a listener, you develop a different relationship with the A and the B side. I wanted to recreate that.
Can you describe some of its guiding lyrical themes?
I feel the first half is introspective, more melancholic, and there is a subconscious awareness of what was to come.
Many of the songs on the first half have a weird fortune-telling quality to them.
This was something Howe and I had talked about — that songs often know you better than you know yourself.
I had started to think about my own mortality, and our approach to it in the West — how we are programmed to see it as a very bad thing always.
The second half, as the title suggests, is a sort of rebirth, letting nature take over, letting go of trying to control life.
Do you feel that each half in some way speaks to the other, producing a cohesive whole?
Someone said it was like an emotional road trip, which I liked. It does feel like it has a narrative to me. I think this makes it a hopeful record.
It’s meaningful to me that the cover image, the start of the record, is me dressed in powerful clothes looking over a landscape in a leader pose, and the image for Feel It All — halfway through the second half — I am in a simple vest, hair in natural plaits, far less formal. It’s almost like the cowboy lording over the land, in contrast to the native American spirit being in harmony with it.
In what ways is the new album different/a progression from your previous works?
This album is all about my voice, which I haven’t focused on before. I was inspired by King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine. It’s such a beautiful album and it gave me faith to slow down, follow my heart with what I wanted to make, and trust that people want to hear crafted, emotional music.
It’s also the first time I have recorded to a tape machine, which was a revelation for me.
You can’t fix things or edit, so I upped my game.
And how different a person are you from the one who made Eye To The Telescope?
Definitely different! I spent ten years trying to get somewhere, playing gigs and surrounding myself with musicians.
I then spent the next ten years as a successful artist, playing gigs and surrounding myself with musicians. The music kept me very distracted. But, of course, you want different things and feel differently about life at 35 compared with 25, so it’s been a big shift for me to look at where I am and accept those changes.
I suppose the major difference is that I don’t feel defined by music any more. It is what I do, not who I am.
How come Howe Gelb produced the record?
We met on a tour put together by Robyn Hitchcock and hit it off straight away. He said I should try recording in Tucson and I asked him if he would oversee it.
What was it like working with him and what did he bring to the record – aside from his magic blue pedal?
The magic blue pedal was a world of craziness! Although I think sadly it has since blown up. It took a bit of getting used to working with Howe. He has his own strange ways of making records.
He’s a maverick and a great character, as well as a fantastic musician. It was good for me to spend time with someone who had a polar opposite approach to music and had never experienced a major record label. It helped me overcome any need for approval and to have fun again. My favourite phrase of his was: “I’m not late, I just arrive ready.”
Are you a fan of his Giant Sand and solo work?
We didn’t know each other’s music at all when we met. I love his stuff, particularly his solo album Sno Angel Like You, with a gospel choir.
The backing on Feel It All has that great laid-back desert rock vibe. Was that something you were keen to embrace?
I took it slowly as I didn’t want to just borrow that sound. I needed to get to a place where it was happening naturally.
I used a great lap steel player called Jon Rauhouse for a few tracks, and I had him play in a certain way and we tinkered with effects, so it still felt like my style whilst using a stereotypically country-music instrument.
But by Feel It All, yes, I had embraced being a desert rat!
You must have been thrilled with the services of master whistler Andrew Bird on Made Of Glass.
I was over the moon he was up for getting involved. He came through town for a show and we grabbed him for an hour or two in the afternoon.
I’d seen him play in New York a couple of years earlier and was blown away by his skill.
Tell us about some of the other great musicians on the album (a couple of familiar names I see like John Parish and Martin Terefe)?
Howe and John Parish have been friends for a long time and Howe suggested John do some mixing. I am a great fan of his playing style and his drumming on the album version of Feel It All is one of my favourite elements of the album.
Various members of Giant Sand joined in, including Brian Lopez, who is a solo artist in his own right, and has an incredible voice and playing style.
He’ll be joining me as a member of my band over the summer.
Are you enjoying taking these new songs on the road?
I am, although it’s pretty intense. I’ve had such a great reaction from people, though.
I’m particularly liking leading everything with my voice rather than my rhythm playing, and singing in a very different way.
Album review: KT Tunstall, Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon (Virgin)
Gelb’s production is supremely simpatico, adding shadings of mellotron, piano, clarinet and strings as she progresses from the emotional transparency of “Made Of Glass” through to her own recovery. A touching, intelligent work.
THE INDEPENDENT (IRELAND):
Games of two halves on double-side album
by JOHN MEAGHER – 07 JUNE 2013
Big release of the week: KT tunstall Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon (Virgin)
After her flirtation with pop on her last album, Kate Victoria Tunstall returns to the more intimate brand of confessional songwriting that made her debut, Eye to the Telescope, so appealing.
For her fourth album, the Edinburghsinger decamped to Tucson,Arizona, to work with the hugely prolific alt.country stalwart Howe Gelb (best known for fronting Giant Sand) in two sessions many months apart – a fact denoted, apparently, by its two-pronged title.
Gelb is an intriguing choice of collaborator. He not only knows his way around a tune to burn itself into your heart, but has something of a track record in bringing out the best in others. And for the first half of this album – Tunstall has talked about two distinct sides, redolent of the vinyl age – Gelb has certainly coaxed some wonderful material from the Scot.
There’s the achingly sad Yellow Flower Song, whose spare arrangement augments Tunstall’s gorgeous, arresting vocals while the wonderfully understated Invisible Empire is one of the very best songs she has yet released.
The death of her adoptive father and the end of her marriage (the divorce was finalised just weeks ago) are likely to have inspired the pervading sense of melancholia that makes the first half so captivating.
By contrast, the Crescent Moon side isn’t nearly as engaging. Several of the songs have been tarted up to such a degree that they sound little more than homogenised middle-of- the-road fodder. Made of Glass would have been much more effective as a sparse, acoustic number rather than the radio-baiting effort released here.
Throughout her career, Tunstall has displayed a similar willingness to wreck her standing as a first-rate songwriter with songs that appear to shamelessly seek mass approval. Maybe she should remember the old adage about not trying to appeal to all of the people all of the time, because she is a force to be reckoned with when she follows her own calling.
THE GUARDIAN (UK)
June 8, 2013
KT Tunstall: Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon – review
(Virgin) 4 out of 5 stars
There was an experiment with a near-electro album in 2010, and that was enough to sendKT Tunstall in the opposite direction for this record. The sparse, countrified tone is new for her – it was recorded in Arizona, with Howe Gelb producing – but fits the reflective mood of the songs, half of them written after her father suddenly died and her marriage ended. The hallmark is delicacy: every song feels fragile. The track Made of Glass even has fragility as its subject – a friend who died of cancer left her a vase, which inspired this gently strummed meditation about breakable gifts. How You Kill Me is also full of pathos; “Just as I sing like a bird, you shoot me down for your fun,” she accuses, over brushed cymbals and hypnotic bass. Waiting on the Heart is the most alt-country moment – Gelb has made free with the pedal steel and reverb, and it’s a stunner. In fact, there’s little here that doesn’t make you wonder where Tunstall has been hiding all this beauty until now.