The Sophomore Class – KT Tunstall, James Blunt

Two standout singer/songwriters from across the pond have just released their second efforts:  KT Tunstall’s “Drastic Fantastic” and James Blunt’s “All the Lost Souls.”   Tunstall shifts slightly away from the percussive one-girl band tricks that marked her debut “Under the Telescope.”  Blunt sports a fuller sound than 2005’s “Back to Bedlam,” all the while channeling his inner Bee Gee.  Of the two, Tunstall’s is the most winning.

For this go-round, KT Tunstall wraps her capacious voice around a rugged pop sound.  On the rollicking “Funnyman,” and the soulful “Saving My Face,” she positively soars.  “Hold On” most closely resembles her biggest hit to date, “Black Horse and Cherry Tree,” but it’s the quieter moments of “Drastic Fantastic” that tantalize most, and mark Tunstall as an artist with a chance to inhabit radios (and iPods) for years down the road. 

“White Bird” gently draws the dichotomy of purity and street wisdom into “a land where they both meet,” while “Beauty of Uncertainty” is sure to draw comparisons to Stevie Nicks.  But it’s better than that – like Nicks, Tunstall’s singing is smooth and supple, but with more leather than lace.

The countrified “Hopeless” is fueled nicely by Roger McGuinn-inspired 12-string guitar, while “I Don’t Want You Now” opens like an early Elvis Costello song without the sneer, but no less certain sentiments. 

“Someday Soon” best captures the disc’s spirit, splitting the difference between pensive ballad and buoyant pop.  With this release, KT Tunstall hits an elusive target for most artists – a sophomore release that surpasses her debut.

If only the same could be said for James Blunt.  “Here we go again,” he sings on the leadoff track, “1973.”  Too much of “All the Lost Souls” is fixated on that decade, decked out in Elton John kitsch.  The surviving Gibb brothers might consider suing him over “One of the Brightest Stars” – consciously or not, its melody is a note for note plagiarizing of “Now and Then,” from 1975’s “Main Course”.   

Blunt also subtly pilfers George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” guitar figure for “Same Mistake” – ironic considering what George went through with “He’s So Fine.”

“Carry You Home” is closer to the syrupy formula that catapulted Blunt to chart heights.  Depending on your tastes, that could be a good or a bad thing. In 2005, “You’re Beautiful” stuck to brains like kudzu to Georgia garden walls.  Some (this writer included) have yet to forgive him for that. 

OK, the record’s not all bad.  The protagonist of “I Really Want You” simmers with rage, a vivid portrait of post-traumatic stress stripped raw.  An acoustic version of “1973” is included as a bonus cut on some versions. Its’ economy brings nuance to everything that’s overwrought about the album version. 

It’s sad that the rest of “All the Lost Souls” isn’t as restrained.

Kelly Willis – Translated From Love

willis.jpgToo tired from raising three children to write original music, Kelly Willis entered the studio ready to record cover tunes.  Gratefully, she found her muse with collaborator/producer Chuck Prophet.  Willis’s first new album in five years is also her best.  At turns sly, clever, upbeat and sweet, “Translated From Love” pairs her honey-throated warble with a range of influences and co-writers.

Iggy Pop’s “Success” has an organ riff lifted straight from “96 Tears,” while “Teddy Boys” reverses genders, but stays true to its rockabilly roots.  Another good rave-up, “Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon,” is musically lean and lyrically limber.  There’s a nice balance of tempos; the beautiful waltz “Stone’s Throw Away” and “Too Much To Lose,” an ode to the challenges of married life sung with husband Bruce Robison, are particular standouts.

The record’s universality is part of its’ charm; the gently loping “Sweet Little One” could be about a child or a lover. The same could be said for “The More That I’m Around You,” a harmony-rich rocker with a very un-country dose of keyboards.

Kelly Willis has flown under the radar for some time.  “Translated from Love” has the potential to change that – if family life doesn’t get in the way.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem – Big Old Life

raniarbo.jpgThis is an ear-to-ear grin of a record, full of joy and the counting of blessings. “Raise your cup to another day,” sings bandleader Arbo on the title cut, an obvious nod to her recent battle with breast cancer. But it would be too easy to sum up the record’s buoyant mood as a simple paean to beating disease. “Big Old Life” is about surviving and thriving.

There’s nary a downbeat moment here. The hymn-like “Joy Comes Back” opens the disc and sets the tone. Equally spiritual is “Roses,” another Arbo original which describes the satisfaction of doing one thing well; it’s also a showcase for the band’s gorgeous harmonizing and spare, attentive playing.

This is a well-balanced effort, with an even mix of originals and covers. Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” and band member Anand Nayak’s original “What’s That” touch on death’s mysteries. “Oil In My Vessel” serves up a gumbo of folk traditions; there are at least four different songs tossed together here (it’s credited to one Joe Thompson), and who knew “Amazing Grace” could sound any happier?

“Farewell Angelina” is an interesting choice for a Bob Dylan cover (“the sky is erupting/I must go where it’s quiet”), but its hootenanny tempo is light years removed from the original. “There’ll be time enough for darkness when everything’s gone,” Arbo sings over a melancholy beat on the album’s closer, a cover of Daisy May Erlewine’s “Shine On.”

That’s the message of “Big Old Life” – shake the demons from the dark moments and dance joyfully into the light.

The Click Five – Modern Minds and Pastimes

clickfive.jpgThe Click Five switch lead singers, but don’t lose a step on their second album. New vocalist Kyle Patrick doesn’t hit the same high notes as the departed Eric Dill, but it hardly matters. Well-crafted pop confections like “Jenny” and “I’m Getting Over You” go down easy – almost too much so. There’s a by the numbers feeling running through the record, as if the five Berklee grads spent as much time in marketing classes as they did perfecting their sound.

The target audience – teens to twentysomethings who like their hooks hard and emo lite – certainly won’t mind. The mix is edgy enough for Warped fans (“When I’m Gone”), but will safely fit on Radio Disney (“Mary Jane”). “Addicted to Me” sounds like a Rob Thomas outtake, while the simple minded fun of “All I Need Is You” shows the influence of Fountains of Wayne founder (and Click Five mentor) Adam Schlesinger.

“Headlight Disco” suggests a Survivor/Prince mash-up; it’s one of the disc’s high points. A less successful blend is the synth-pop album opener “Flipside,” which cuts erratically between emo noodling and Big Eighties arena rock.

They’re on safer footing with “Happy Birthday, where the song’s protagonist sends a belated wish to his long distance girlfriend. It’s a new take on an old theme, but as a trip to any multiplex makes clear, it’s a season of sequels. The pop music world’s no different.

Brad Paisley – 5th Gear

bradpaisley.jpgForget Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Toby Keith – Brad Paisley is the real deal, the total package. His latest is a winning combination of humor, soul, sensitivity and his secret weapon, blistering guitar power. A country star with chops like this hasn’t come around since Vince Gill left Pure Prairie League, turned down a chance to join Dire Straits, and unleashed “Oklahoma Borderline” on an unsuspecting world.

On “5th Gear” Paisley shows the everyman touch. A 16-year old boy’s simple ambitions power “All I Wanted Was A Car,” while “I’m Still A Guy” is a hilarious send-up of the battle of the sexes. “In a weak moment I might walk your sissy dog, hold your purse at the mall,” says Paisley, “but remember – I’m still a guy.”

“Ticks” celebrates what may be the most absurd barroom come-on ever devised, while “Online” puts a country accent on the old axiom, “in cyberspace, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Paisley has his pensive moments on “Letter to Me,” “With You, Without You” and the pretty “Oh Love” duet with Carrie Underwood. “When We All Get To Heaven” could be part two of “When I Get To Where I’m Going” from his last album, and continues his habit of including at least one gospel song on each release.

The rockers “Mr. Policeman” and the instrumental “Throttleneck” serve notice that for all his aw-shucks twang, Paisley can play most guitarists under the table.

In a noteworthy tribute, Vince Gill lends his voice (and dubious acting talents) to a vignette by the Kung Pao Buckaroos, the supergroup-cum-sketch comedy ensemble that also includes Little Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson.

Syd – The Way We Found It

sydcd.jpgA CD Review

It’s been a long time coming for this, the second effort from Syd. The Norwich native spent much of 2005 in the studio, only to shelve the work last autumn. Rescued by producer Danny Weinkauf (Fountains of Wayne, They Might Be Giants) and freshly mixed by Jeff Thall, “The Way We Found It” is a pointed departure from the bright pop of 2004’s “Fault Lines.” The ironic disc opener, “All Time High,” as well as “It Was You,” are shaded with a melancholy missing from the first disc.

While challenging, this mood also makes for a better-rounded overall effort. The songwriting is probing and mature, and the experience of supporting musicians, drummer Sam Smith and guitarist Dylan Allen, shows through.

It’s a daring balancing act at times; “Still Life” manages to be both buoyant and dour. The disc’s best track, the richly textured “Far Away” suggests Syd was taking cues from Elliot Smith instead of Jack Johnson this time around. The song’s coda – “distance will make you forget me/I hope distance will make you forget me” – reveals the romantic loss that permeates much of the record.

Other highlights include the soaring “You Said” and “Sail The Sea,” a pretty cover of friend Gregory Douglass’s song.

Jenny Owen Youngs – Batten the Hatches

owenyoungscd.jpgA CD Review

Her fragile voice sits somewhere between Norah Jones and a twanged-out Beth Orton, but the similarities end there. Jenny Owen Youngs delivers a sweetly subversive concoction of modern alienation, romantic ennui and deliciously infectious hooks.

Youngs explores technology’s hold on human interaction from a variety of angles. “Voice On Tape” uses answering machine clips to probe the disconnected world of voicemail and instant messages (“you say that I don’t have this down/but I’ve been practicing out loud”). “P.S.” imagines life as television, prerecorded and edited:” I don’t want to watch anything that hurts.”

“Drinking Song” and “F*ck Was I” are rich with the kind of good-natured self-deprecation that would sound like self-loathing in other hands. Dan Romer’s soft touch, lo-fi production is spot on, giving Youngs’ many subtle elements plenty of room to breathe. Romer and fellow Fireflies member Adam Christgau also play on most of the tracks.

There’s not a wasted moment here, from the staccato noodling on “Porchrail” that starts “Batten the Hatches” to “Keys Out Lights On,” the album’s dreamy closer, where Youngs states with wry hope, “I got so much stowed away down there.”

Youngs released this (her debut CD) independently last year. In early 2007 Nettwerk Records, home to Sarah McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies, picked it up for wider distribution. Hopefully, this major label push will give Jenny Owen Youngs the larger audience she so richly deserves.