Album reviews: KT Tunstall | Cat Power | Kristin Hersh | Carla J Easton
KT Tunstall: WAX (Virgin) ***
Cat Power: Wanderer (Domino) ****
Kristin Hersh: Possible Dust Clouds (Fire Records) ***
Carla J Easton: Impossible Stuff (Olive Grove Records) ****
From the moment she strikes the first meaty chord of her new album, you can appreciate why KT Tunstall has attracted the endorsement of her recent tourmate Chrissie Hynde. Hynde probably recognises a kindred spirit – a determined, talented, independent-minded musician with a love of rocking out whatever the musical weather.
Like Hynde, Tunstall can also give good ballad and pop tuneage and there is room for all facets of her music on WAX. But the engine here is the electric guitar, which she wields alongside her co-writer and producer, former Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy, who is also no slouch when it comes to penning hooklines.
WAX is the second in a trilogy of albums themed around soul, body and mind. Appropriately for the “body” chapter, Tunstall is looking fierce and sounding visceral in her desire to capture the greater grit of her live shows.
The production remains slick and radio-friendly but there is a tougher tone and more rhythmic sound here which recalls her breakthrough hit Black Horse & the Cherry Tree as she celebrates the tingle of new relationships on power pop rocker Human Being, the need for escape and cleansing on The River and channels some of Hynde’s feline presence on The Healer.
But there are also echoes of another natural born frontwoman on Poison In Your Cup, which recalls the seductive ache which Sharleen Spiteri brings to the softer Texas songs. Tunstall is confident in displaying sensitivity, whether on the stealthy, breathy funk of The Mountain or the burnished roots pop of The Night That Bowie Died, suffused with subtle Bowie influences in the wistful melody and plangent guitar, and stays in sensitive mode to end the album on the gentle pulsing heartbeat of Tiny Love.
There is further strength in subtlety and vulnerability on the latest release by Cat Power, aka singer/songwriter Chan Marshall, who turns in another sumptuously produced collection of stripped-back soulful pop delivered in her smoky, bluesy tone. Marshall casts herself as the travelling troubadour on Wanderer where her raw emotions find solace in the comforting music. The sparse but captivating klezmer noir of Me Voy is a highlight; elsewhere, she covers Rihanna’s Stay as a luminous piano ballad, layers on her vocals to create a chorus of Cats on the acoustic blues of Black and duets with the similarly sultry Lana Del Rey on slow-burning southern soul lament Woman.
The equally intuitive Kristin Hersh usually records solo – describing her previous acoustic album Wyatt at the Coyote Palace as “the sound of having no friends” – but she has opted to get social on Possible Dust Clouds which was recorded in scrappy style by collaring passing musicians and inviting them to “make some noise.” The results are duly grimy and grungey, from the fuzzy squall of Fox Point via the clattering momentum of Lethe to the punk waltz of Loudmouth. There’s a feral charge to proceedings, just don’t expect to make out any lyrics among the muffled guitar heroics, distorted vocals and lumbering, inexorable rhythm of No Shade In Shadow and its ilk.
Glasgow’s Carla J Easton is both fan and purveyor of girl group pop, celebrating the unsung female musicians of Scotland from the McKinley Sisters to Strawberry Switchblade in the documentary Since Yesterday and its complementary Edinburgh International Festival concert, as well as fronting her own band Teen Canteen. But her second solo album is her boldest pop broadcast yet, spanning the girl group spectrum from the romantic rallying cry of Dreamers on the Run and the quivering ballad Vagabond to the pulsing electro pop of Lights in the Dark and the stomping, uplifting Milk & Honey. - Fiona Shepherd
Handel: Ode for St Cecilia’s Day (Linn) *****
Music that celebrates music; we have John Dryden to thank for the 17th century poem that honours music’s patron saint Cecilia, but it was Handel who turned these words, and their exquisite allusions to the powers of the marshal trumpet, complaining flute, frantic violins and scared organ, into the musical marvel that is his Ode for Saint Cecilia. Here is a performance that draws every ounce of emotive symbolism and sublime inference from Handel’s poetically refined score. It features John Butt’s excitingly precise Dunedin Consort, whose instrumentalists are idiomatically stylish to the last, and whose core singers are augmented by the homogeneously matching Polish Radio Choir. Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Carolyn Sampson (soprano) bring illustrative colour to the arias. This is yet another Baroque tour de force from Butt, who has a simple knack of turning highly informed intelligence and curiosity into performances fired by spontaneous combustion.
George Duff: The Collier Laddie (Own Label) ****
George Duff has been a weel-kent yet never recorded Scottish folk voice for four decades or more, so this late-in-the day debut album is welcome. A fine guitarist, he’s joined in these 16 songs by a squad of seasoned players, including Kevin Macleod of the Occasionals on guitars, bouzouki and mandolins, Tannahill Weavers fiddler John Martin and Battlefield Band’s Mike Katz on whistles and small pipes. Duff sings with rugged clarity, his background as a mining engineer deeply informing his choices and bringing a knowing edge to numbers such as The Eight-Hour Day and Brian McNeill’s powerful Prince of Darkness. Other songs include the mellow title track, the sweetly poignant Banks of the Bann and Burns favourites Green Grow the Rashes and Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie. On the contemporary side is the condemnatory heartbreak of Alistair Hulett’s He Fades Away and an upbeat closer with Michael Marra’s When These Shoes Were New.