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Fate is a strange (and occasionally kind) mistress when it comes to doling out those “once in a lifetime” opportunities. At the start of the last decade, Scottish musician, singer and songwriter KT Tunstall had been grinding relentlessly for that ever-elusive break. After several starts in various band settings, she eventually struck out alone via the independent imprint Relentless Records. In 2004, when hip-hop icon Nas issued a last-minute cancellation for an appearance on Later…with Jools Holland, Tunstall suddenly found herself with a chance to make an impression on a captive television audience as a last-minute stand-in. She made it count.
Taking to the stage, Tunstall performed “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” the first single from her then forthcoming debut album Eye to the Telescope (2004). Released shortly after her impactful Jools Holland appearance, her inaugural set was a critical and commercial smash. Tunstall’s sound was special from the start—a lyrically driven, rhythmically compelling blend of folk, blues and pop all placed under a sturdy AOR overhead. On the back of Eye to the Telescope, Tunstall took her music around the world several times over in a career that has so far spanned nearly 15 years.
One of the key ingredients to Tunstall’s longevity has been her enviable rock & roll equipoise that typically finds her darting easily between the genre’s sweet and savory sides. Post-Eye to the Telescope, Drastic Fantastic (2007) dedicated itself to maintaining this balancing act. Others, like Tiger Suit (2010) and Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon (2013), explored the joyful noise and graceful hush extremes of the guitar-pop and folk modes respectively.
All of this dressed the scene for the multifaceted KIN (2016), Tunstall’s fifth album which was the opening salvo of a record trilogy. Each of these long players were studies in the individual concepts of “soul,” “body” and “mind.” KIN embodied the first of these principles and her recently released sixth LP WAX acts as the ambassador for “body.”
The majority of WAX’s production is steered by former Franz Ferdinand rhythm guitarist Nick McCarthy and Sebastian Kellig, with Tim Bran and Roy Kerr handling one composition (“In This Body”) sans McCarthy and Kellig. Regardless of how the record’s production is drawn up, it is all guided by Tunstall’s knowing instruction. As the LP’s primary songwriter and conceptualist, she executes all of WAX’s eleven tracks flawlessly. Whereas KIN kept its melodies lockstep with its rock rhythms, WAX inverts this method, maintaining melody, but letting the rock rhythms lead. Again, Tunstall’s ability to find that sweet spot between these two musical elements is almost unmatched.
Kicking off with a bang, WAX starts with “Little Red Thread” and rarely relents in relation to its scuzzy, but shimmery interface of electric guitar and bass that recall a bit of vintage new wave flash and modish rock-pop flair at different intervals on the collection. Singling out one of WAX’s most striking moments “The Mountain”—a groovy paean to late ‘70s guitar-pop and R&B fusion—it becomes abundantly clear that the bulk of these pieces on WAX are dedicated to Tunstall’s vision of driving physicality, the sheer movement of the human body.
In addition to a well-rounded band giving the album its snap and buoyancy, Tunstall’s multi-instrumentalism is a wonder to behold. On WAX, Tunstall features prominently on the guitar, keyboards, synthesizer and flute. Her playing, along with the rest of the band, attests to the fluidity between the natural and artificial sonic texturing on the long player. This facet of recording is portrayed vividly through a select clutch of balladic midtempos, notably “Dark Side of Me,” “Poison in My Cup,” and “Tiny Love.” All three of these compositions collectively display Tunstall’s dusky and delicate tone in beautiful form. These entries also pack the most emotional punch on the record. Lyrically, they sketch Tunstall as an impassioned woman of many complexities searching for a greater sense of understanding of herself.
As it stands now, Tunstall has scored her sixth sequential effort to be solid from top-to-bottom—an achievement rarely accomplished by an artist regardless of their genre of origin. However, WAX succeeds because Tunstall is aware of what she does best, but she’s willing to constantly push those abilities as far as they can go with each album she does—that is the mark of a true innovator.
Notable Tracks: “Dark Side of Me” | “Little Red Thread” | “The Mountain” | “The River”