Armed with only her guitar and a loop pedal, Tunstall effortlessly outperformed The Cure, Embrace and Jackson Browne on Later... with Jools Holland last October. Appearing on the show because the jazz trumpeter Olu Dara was ill, Tunstall took her chance breezily in her stride. With "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree", the Scottish songstress snaffled half of the audience's vote on the Later... website. She was instantly and somewhat hysterically announced as the next in line to the pop-diva throne - a "worthy" successor to Dido and Katie Melua. The Independent even struck a comparison with Carole King, whom Tunstall has cited as a big influence. She has also been compared to Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Christine McVie.
Supported this time by a band and dressed as if going to a school disco (T-shirt, miniskirt and leg-warmers), she announces herself to her appreciative audience with: "This is the first gig where people might know some words." In fact, the exotic-looking singer (her natural mother is Hong Kong Chinese, and her natural father is Irish) comes across more like a hybrid of Sheryl Crow and Edie Brickell. The lavish hype and praise being heaped on her slender shoulders do appear slightly excessive.
Her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, showcases her languorous voice but is overproduced and unmemorable. But it has three stand-out tracks - "False Alarm", "Under the Weather" and "The Universe and I". Starker and grittier than the rest, those intimate songs are also the stand-out numbers of the night. Her voice on them is acidulously powerful, and the audience reaction is warm (no lighters aloft, thankfully, but the potential is there).
Also in Tunstall's favour are her lyrics: keeping clear of the obnoxiously twee, they occasionally prove captivating, as in her opening number, "Another Place to Fall" - "Are you blind; blind to me trying to be kind, volunteering for your firing line?" However, with all her charisma and warmth tonight, Tunstall's words ultimately lack bite and fall short of the penetrating insights of Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon. But her fine, natural voice, her trump card, never falters; it's what distinguishes her from Dido and her clan of bland clones.
In the unforgiving venue, Tunstall's husky voice, with its occasional sexy, throaty catch, is far superior to anything she has committed to record. On "Under the Weather", her seductive tones blend perfectly with the plaintive chord structures. Clearly, the over-elaboration on the album diminishes her rootsy sass, because tonight she has that quality in abundance.
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