[19 February 2006]
Catherine Tuttle is as frustrating as she is surprising. As a 16-year-old piano-prodigy, Tuttle captured the attention of music producer Glen Barratt without the aid of a slinky wardrobe, a TV show, or in-the-industry relatives. Her talent, at least as Barratt saw it, was of the real, raw kind. Her compositions were perfectly pop, with just the right hint of ‘60s girl-rock icons to shift her into a category way above the Mickey-Mouse youngsters of the present age. Peel, Tuttle’s first record, was smart and weirdly sexy despite the artist’s youth, yet still reeked of early teenage naiveté. When you’re 16 and so clearly emerging, the kiddiness is forgivable—more so when such promise is on display. The expectations, then, were big for What They Will Find. Now 19 and near done with her adolescence, have Tuttle’s lyrics finally caught up with her melodies?
Almost. And this is where the frustration comes in. Tuttle is so supremely gifted musically, it’s not hard to throw this record on and laze away the days as it soothes and settles. Tuttle’s press people aren’t exaggerating when they compare her to Joni Mitchell and Carole King. As far as her melodies and vocals go, they’re spot on. Still, the Harvard freshman hasn’t quite mastered honesty over theatrics in her lyrics. It’s an easy criticism, but Tuttle’s words still have that undergrad poetry class vibe of fire and water metaphors over genuine imagery to evoke pain and sadness. In this way, Tuttle brings to mind Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch rather than some of the other names touted in her press release, including Tori Amos. The fluffiness on this record suggests Tuttle’s got a hell of a lot to suffer through before she can write herself a “Tear in Your Hand”.
Isn’t this often the issue with teenage songwriters? It’s not that they aren’t good writers, it’s simply that it’s difficult to hold their varied weepy sentiments too close to heart. A 19-year-old singing about the pressures of burned love just isn’t as affecting as Amos relating her personal scars. It’s not Tuttle’s fault that she’s too young to have genuinely been put through the ringer enough to authentically convey the meant-to-be harrowing emotions on “Kerosene”, “Ink on the Skin”, or “Restless”. “Ink”, to be fair, excellently compares the lasting effect of a broken lover to an unwanted tattoo, but a girl with such vibrance and youth on her side as Tuttle just cannot get away with singing “the city got old and so did I”. Or that “I’ve lived so many lies, so many times” on “Restless”.
This isn’t to say, of course, that young girl songwriters have nothing to say (or that young listeners won’t relate). And it’s true that Tuttle may have been burned, and may have felt exactly these overblown emotions—didn’t we all feel so old at 19?—but one gets the sense this is a girl playing dress up; creating these emotions for better effect. Tuttle’s imagery consists of “cheap digital clock[s]”, “bleeding heart[s]”, “overstuffed chair[s]”, and a “ten dollar bill stuck to the gum of my feet”. There’s just too little about real despair, which she is obviously going for, to genuinely grip.
Consider “Tell Me Something”, on which Tuttle tries her best to appear intimate with real suffering but comes up embarrassingly short: “Tell me something I haven’t heard before / Left another heart bleeding at your back door ... Tell me something new / Something borrowed, someone’s blue / The broken break the news”. All the right elements are in place for heartfelt writing—the sense of irony, a poetic way with words and phrases, imagery, sarcasm, sadness, but it just doesn’t authentically mesh. At least, not to a non-teenage ear.
Tuttle excels when she keeps her images simple and her sentiments believable—that of an inexperienced woman testing the waters of love and life. When she’s not trying so hard to write cleverly and dramatically, she demonstrates exactly what it is about her that is so compelling at 19. When keeping it plain, she can convey the intricacies and confusions of young love and burgeoning womanhood skillfully and convincingly. On “In Short”, she sings: “I feel like such a little girl / That’s not fair / I hardly know you / Well, I guess there’s knowing / Then there’s knowing, isn’t there?” It’s exactly these adolescent and unformed thoughts that made much of Jagged Little Pill work for a 20-year-old Alanis Morissette, another artist Tuttle’s press folks compare her to.
The positives, though, outweigh the negatives in terms of general listening. Tuttle is a wonderful vocalist, and even when her lyrical phrasing misses the mark, her voice remains sweet and comforting. And, you know, after all that, Tuttle really does something special on “To Understand”. It’s the perfect mix of youthful vulnerability and grown up self-awareness that makes me think that once Tuttle is past her teens, she’s got some explosive stuff to come.