KT TUNSTALL:TIGER SUIT RELENTLESS £12.99 ****
KT TUNSTALL'S new single (Still A) Weirdo is a contemplative song about how life doesn't always turn out the way you expect it to. "I was going to be a treetop, a sea, a boat, a rock of ages," she proclaims lightly over undulating guitar and handclaps. But instead she became an internationally renowned musician on the hamster wheel of success with her songs on adverts and film soundtracks and American Idol.
Tunstall didn't expect to get married, nor that she would put down roots in rural Englandshire, but she has done both since the release of her previous album, Drastic Fantastic, three years ago. However, one thing which hasn't changed since those childhood ruminations is what she calls her "feral" nature, and it was reconnecting with this desire for adventure which has informed the making of her third album.
There were creative lows - a crash of confidence and the inevitable sapping of energy when you haven't had a break in six years - before Tunstall hit on a new slant with the assistance of Arctic Monkeys producer Jim Abbiss. But there was also a three-month honeymoon revelling in the inspiring landscapes of South America, New Zealand and India, shamanistic experiences in the Californian desert and a year off to reflect and write, followed by a rekindled love of dance music, an all-night clubbing session in Berlin while she was recording at the legendary Hansa Studios and a newfound mania for synthesizers.
All of this has gone into the pot which Tunstall has dubbed "Nature Techno", her attempt to harness both the primitive and the progressive aspects of her music. The "dance" element of this new album shouldn't be overstated, however. Tunstall dresses up her songs with brave new sounds but at heart she's still a pop songwriter with rootsy inclinations. As it turns out, (Still A) Weirdo is the most wistful moment on the album, a simple, beguiling, acoustic amble which isn't particularly representative of the rest of Tiger Suit and seems like a perversely low-key way to advertise her return.
Uummannaq Song, named after a town in Greenland and inspired by a fateful trip there as part of the Cape Farewell environmental project, gives a more rounded picture of where she's at with its backdrop of keyboard drone, Afrobeat guitar and a gaggle of strident, looped KTs who crop up as a backing chorus all over Tiger Suit. Tunstall calls them "the Tribe". But none of these exotic embellishments are allowed to overwhelm what is essentially a breezy tune about finding yourself more at home when you are far from home.
There is a degree of tension throughout between Tunstall's determination to try something different and her love of a simple song.Difficulty could have remained a fairly conventional relationship number about going the extra mile in a friendship - the likes of, say, The Corrs would simply have wisped fragrantly through an acoustic version - but, instead, Tunstall builds a cage of distorted riffs, chiming keyboards and yodelling vocals around its skeleton which add character without ever sounding like the most natural fit for the song.
On the other hand, Lost is beautifully and sensitively coloured with more Hansa drone, fluttering backing vocals and some oriental-sounding chimes, while Golden Frames effortlessly conjures up an appropriately broody, spooky dustbowl atmosphere as the backdrop to its tale of alien encounters in the desert, with Seasick Steve rumbling in the background for extra credibility.
No matter how comfortably Tunstall inhabits her Tiger Suit it is the songwriter core that makes or breaks the album, and Tunstall is generally at her best when she's whipping up some hootenanny like the fun, fuzzy blues of Glamour Puss, featuring the Tribe in full effect.
Fade Like A Shadow, a chirpy, chiming confection about exorcism, is a little too throwaway but Come On, Get In, a bold, bluesy pop number in the catchy vein of Hold On and Black Horse & The Cherry Tree, is as commanding as its title and as fancy-free as its message about acting on impulse and losing inhibitions - a lesson which Tunstall appears to have learned herself.
There is a certain pagan freedom cantering through Push That Knot Away, while Tunstall lets her hair down most appealingly on the sassy glam stomp of Madame Trudeaux, a Suddenly I See-style celebration of liberation and revelation co-written with Linda Perry, which salutes the entertaining scandal-in-a-teacup caused by Margaret Trudeau, the young wife of the former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when she disappeared for a couple of days in the late 1970s to hang out with The Rolling Stones. It's only right that Tunstall, on her return to the wild, should have more fun with this frolic than anything else.