If I listen to a new album over and over again, I either end up liking it more and more each time or I like it less and less each time. I always have some sort of emotional reaction. But if I don’t like an album the first time I listen to it then chances are that I’m not going to fall in love with it. I might listen to it a few more times and give it a proper chance, but it’s rare that something I dislike initially will end up growing on me. Plus, I’m always taking in new music, writing as many reviews as I do, so there isn’t much time to keep listening to things that didn’t move me the first time I listened to them. Even the albums that I love, once I’ve reviewed them I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like to keep listening to them again and again because I need to listen to new music and write more reviews.
I didn’t really care for KT Tunstall’s new album, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, the first time that I listened to it. But I’d really enjoyed her previous albums and was a true fan, not just a casual listener who only knew her hits. So, I gave it another chance. And I didn’t like it any more than the first time. But I didn’t hate it either. So, I added a few of the songs to my latest bedtime playlist, since it’s a very mellow folk album. And, guess what? I fell totally in love with them.
There are always certain songs on my bedtime playlists that are good background music that I would probably only listen to when I’m feeling anxious or am trying to fall asleep. But there are others that are really wonderful, engaging songs that just happen to be mellow. And I’ll often end up liking those songs so much that I wind up listening to them during the daytime, too. And that’s what happened with KT’s album. I came to like the songs on my bedtime playlist so much that I started listening to the whole album during the day. That said, initially, I didn’t like the other songs as much as the ones on my bedtime playlist. I found myself wondering if they’d just need time to grow on me, like the others, and kept listening to the whole album accordingly. And, sure enough, the other songs grew on me. Now I think the entire album is brilliant.
I only recently learned that KT is Scottish. I’d just always assumed she was from the U.S. I might have read that she was Scottish in a review or two at some point, but I have memory issues, so I must have totally forgotten it not long after reading it, if indeed I did read it. In any case, I looked her up on Wikipedia before writing this review and learned quite a few interesting things about her. For one thing, she has a half-Chinese, half-Scottish mother and an Irish father. When she was 18 days old she was adopted by a family from St. Andrews, Fife and she’s apparently never met her biological father. Her adoptive parents were both teachers. Wiki indicates that her father was a physics lecturer at the University of St. Andrews and simply states that her mother was a school teacher. Her family also included an older brother, Joe, and a younger brother, Daniel. Strangely, her parents had zero interest in music and didn’t own any. In fact, the only cassette her father owned was a comedy album by mathematician and musical satirist Tom Lehrer.
KT attended her final year of high school here in the States, studying at Kent School in Connecticut. And at some point she spent time living in a commune in Vermont. She even spent time busking on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont. I believe that was the first time that she performed music in public.
But let’s get to the present, shall we?
KT collaborated on her new album with Howe Gelb of the U.S. alt-rock band Giant Sand. He produced the album and I believe he did so in a subtle manner, always allowing the focus of the songs to be KT’s delicate vocals. When you listen to the album, her voice is so clear and unprocessed that it sounds as though she’s right there in front of you, performing the album in a cozy cafe. It’s so easy to picture her hitting the magnificent high notes in the highly emotive “Feel It All” because her voice sounds so life-like, so natural. Listen to this album and then listen to an album by a pop star and the difference between the vocals will be night and day. It’s not that KT’s vocals have been stripped away here — no, it’s that the pop star’s vocals have been processed in several different ways. Believe me, auto-tune isn’t the only thing producers can do to make vocals sound “better.” Of course, I like plenty of bubblegum pop. The thing is, I like different things for different reasons. And I like this album because it sounds so real, so unfiltered, so unprocessed. It’s like the audio equivalent of locally grown, organic health food. Which might not sound appetizing. Hell, it didn’t sound appetizing to me the first time I listened to this album. But the more I tasted it, the more I came to like it. Now I can’t stop indulging in it.
The album was basically recorded in two sessions. The first half, Invisible Empire, was recorded during April of 2012. While I wouldn’t call it depressing, it’s certainly melancholic and deals with serious subjects, such as her father’s death and the theme of mortality. Although I love the entire album, I do have to admit that I’m a little more in love with this half. The lyrics are just so touching and haunting. Here’s the first verse from “Made of Glass,” which would be my favorite song on the album if I had to pick one: “Fire me in an oven / Until I go hard enough / To deal with losing you / I’m tired of thinking of you / Each and every minute I see / Something I know that you’d love.” A couple of years ago I lost both of my grandmothers and my family was especially close to one of them, so I can certainly relate to KT’s brutally honest lyrics. I believe KT was also going through her divorce when she wrote this half of the album and I believe “How You Kill Me” is about that. “How you kill me / Taking up all of my patience,” she sings. “Leaving my temper a widow / But I don’t feel like grieving.” There are moments when the way she sings this song makes it sound like a happy love song, but then the inflection of her voice changes and she sounds like a woman scorned, like she’s bitter and angry.
The second half of the album, Crescent Moon, was recorded during November of 2012 and Wiki describes it as having songs that are more ethereal and I think that sums it up perfectly. The songs are still delicate, overflowing with emotion, but they’re also lighter in terms of both the lyrics and music. Take these lyrics from the sweet little song “Honeydew”: “Give a little, give a lot, my love / It never matters cause it’s always enough / Just to know that you are coming over.” If she’s grieving the loss of her father and her divorce during Invisible Empire, it would seem she’s ready to move on during Crescent Moon.
Fans of KT’s earlier albums might be more inclined to fall in love with Crescent Moon first, though Invisible Empire appears before it. Personally, I would recommend listening to the album from start to finish, but if you’re finding the subject matter of Invisible Empire to be too heavy then at least skip to “Crescent Moon” and listen to that half of the album. And listen to it at least a few times before giving up on it. It’s a real grower.
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