Of the many musical breakthroughs in the 90s, one of the most sublime was the emergence of female singer/songwriters with something new to say. Acting on the territory mined by Joni Mitchell and Carole King, woman like Alanis, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Sarah MacLachlan and Sheryl Crow received both critical acclaim and commercial success.
And today, I prefer the new crop over their male counterparts of the same era. James Blunt and Michael Buble? Give me KT Tunstall, Dido and Sheryl Crow any day -- they're more assertive and emotional than the simpering males that somehow make it to the radio.
'Course, I dig chicks with guitars, so maybe I'm biased. But hear me out, would ya? Tunstall's debut disc sounds a lot like Nelly Furtado, Dido and slower Sheryl Crow, but there's nothing wrong with that because this still is relatively new territory -- and Tunstall has a hell of a lot more fun here than most other singer/songwriters on the radio now. Unfortunately, that fun doesn't happen often enough, making this alternately promising and frustrating.
Tunstall has a sort of smoky bar-ready delivery with a hint of sensuality, a voice ready for both folky nightclubs and the pop-radio game. Because this is acoustic-based pop, about three-quarters of the songs are very professional, adult and boring -- "Other Side Of The World" and "Under The Weather," in particular, are pleasant but instantly forgettable. Perhaps it's a requirement that all women who release discs like this have to include some slow, pensive acoustic tunes, but it's not a requirement they be boring.
It's when Tunstall ratchets up the urgency that the album becomes worthwhile. "Another Place To Fall" deserves a spot on Top 40 radio, because while it would fit in perfectly with today's sound, it's a bit more eccentric and downbeat than your usual Vanessa Carlton or Kelly Clarkson hit. Country fans will like "Black Horse And The Cherry Tree," which sounds like a Shania Twain outtake ever since she began her whole spoken-lyric-over-pop-beat career phase. Still, it's not as overtly commercial as, say, "Any Man Of Mine."
"Miniature Disasters" has a slightly jazzy ambiance and some slightly thoughtful vocals ("Miniature disasters and minor catastrophes / Bring me to my knees / Well I must be my own master / Or a miniature disaster will be / It will be the death of me"), while on "Silent Sea" Tunstall morphs into the estrogen-led version of Coldplay (like they had a long way to go). A fuzzbox is the only interesting part of "Universe & U," along with some mundane lyrics ("I am me, the universe and you"), but lyrics aren't really Tunstall's strength.
Because of that, it's the music that needs to carry this disc, and about half the time it does. Again, when the music gets urgent it gets fun, such as "Suddenly I See," but this is too rare an occurrence on this disc to make it truly memorable. It's worth noting that Tunstall doesn't aspire to the mainstream as openly as many other female songwriters today, and her sound will appeal to fans of Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, Vanessa Carlton and, well, pretty much every woman on pop radio. It's just a shame KT felt the need to include so many downers on the disc and not play to her strengths, because when she's on she's as solid as any other songwriter of the last 15 years.
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