Dubliner Imelda May has just released her first US album, Love Tattoo, and now Americans will be able to see why she has become the UK darling, even of such major tastemakers as Jools Holland. Love Tattoo is a surprisingly eclectic, big band affair where May’s impressive chops are clearly the star. Her moments of epic vocal maneuvers are paired with equally slinky occasions on the slower numbers, creating an impressive sampler of the many pleasures of her voice.
Love Tattoo opens with “Johnny Got a Boom Boom”, a blues-guitar driven number in which May’s vocal phrasing is lightning-quick and punctuated with brass accents. Vocally, KT Tunstall would be an apt comparison, at least on the album’s faster numbers. May’s howl and the sudden surf-rock bridge are all her own, though, and the way May howls, “He’s gonna freak you out!” makes freaking out sound positively festive. “Johnny Got a Boom Boom” is followed by the similarly rowdy “Feel Me”. The brass and big-band influences are, pardon the pun, in full swing by now, complete with jazzy piano fills.
“Knock 123” is a sudden change into full-on sultry, slow-burn seduction. “Knock 123 on the wall,” she instructs her secret lover as their secret code. A creeping bassline augments the languor in May’s buttery voice as she watches her lover across a room and muses on her desire. Her ballad-voice doesn’t quite match the more complex sultriness of singers like Eleni Mandell or Lhasa de Sela, but it’s damn convincing..
“Wild About My Lovin’” attempts to combine the lust of the previous track with the high energy of the album’s first two songs. This song is not delivered quite as convincingly, with May’s vocals lacking the pyrotechnics she shows off on “Johnny Got a Boom Boom”. There is more surf-rock, though, fear not. “Big Bad Handsome Man” is a piano-and-brass-driven big band number. “He’s my big band handsome man / He’s got me in the palm of his hand,” May sings amid soaring trumpets. This is a fine moment to acknowledge the musicianship of May’s collaborators—it’s not many vocal-driven artists who can successfully showcase superb guitarists, pianists, and trumpeters.
“Love Tattoo” finds May back in Tunstall-esque territory. Her trademark fast phrasing and spiraling delivery make this an easy, highly danceable number. “Meet You at the Moon” is another smoky, slow number. This one is songbook-classic and made for dancing in a period-accurate. By the time “Smokers’ Song” comes around, though, May’s quick, big band songs are beginning to blur together. Her lyrics aren’t memorable enough to prevent this phenomenon, and she also doesn’t fight it with unexpected instrumentation or skillful use of negative space. Fortunately, “Smotherin’ Me” is a standout track. “Can’t even breathe when I’m with you,” May sings exasperatedly before panting heavily into the microphone. Her vocals even reach Janis Joplin-territory on a few occasions in this song.
“Falling in Love With You Again” is another of her classic piano lounge numbers, though soft, steady percussion provides an excellent counterpoint to May’s high-femme vocals. “I loved you from the start / But now I love you with all my heart / Cause I’m fallin in love with you again,” May sings as the brass enters more gently than before. There’s nothing new about this song or May’s performance of it, but it’s a very pleasant choice for listeners wanting a neo-40’s love song.
“It’s Your Voodoo Working” is May’s clever narrative of a woman on whom the famed mojo is working. “It’s your voodoo workin and I can’t get enough,” May faux-protests, making this one of the catchier up-tempo numbers from the album. “Watcha Gonna Do” is another one, featuring the more gravely ends of May’s range and relentless delivery as an electric guitar manufactures an industrial edge beneath May’s croons, whimpers, and screams.
May is definitely a talent, and her voice’s versatility proves that. Hopefully as her career progresses, she’ll make each track as good as the best on this album.