Since releasing Love Tattoo in 2008, Imelda May has started to get some attention, but primarily on the far side of the Atlantic. The Irish singer’s wild vocals, retro style, and rockabilly sounds should be attention-getting, but they may be exactly the reason why she’s gone relatively unnoticed in the US so far. With her new release Mayhem, she proves that she and her band are one of rock’s more exciting and intriguing acts right now, regardless of whether or not she’s finding a proper fit (or even a proper US release).
May’s biggest influences come from the rockabilly tradition, occasionally echoing (relatively) recent acts like the Stray Cats or even Brian Setzer’s later works, sometimes coming more from an Eddie Cochrane line, and sometimes even getting to the psychobilly craziness. Matching the look, the licks, and the guitar tones to predecessor might set the up as act up as a simple nostalgia exercise, but Mayhem doesn’t sound like that sort of project.
The album stays unique in large part because of May herself. While the band’s tight and energetic, it’s always May’s vocals driving the performances. She knows how to simmer and how to boil, and she knows when to do which. Placing “Pulling the Rug” at the start of the album shows smart track sequencing, as the band quickly gets into the groove, but May doesn’t give too much away early on. It’s a steady, captivating roll, but withholding the explosiveness that shows up throughout the album.
“Psycho” releases the sound a little. Here (and elsewhere) May sounds a little reminiscent of Karen O, a comparison in both the actual sound of the vocals and the artists’ ability to control their performances so well, either when restrained or released. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs connection (albeit somewhat spurious beyond vocalist approaches) points to May’s bands ability to merge several sounds, including not only rockabilly, but garage, surf, country, and more. It’s an appropriate tack to take, and not one too uncommon. While she’s opened for Jeff Beck, it’s easier to see her touring with acts like the Sadies or Heavy Trash.
Of course, May isn’t that easy to pin down, and it’s likely that the track the will get the most attention is the one that lets her perform in a different light. “Kentish Town Waltz” is the slow ballad that puts May ahead of a single-note guitar line and a downcast horn section. It’s a strong number about staying together throug difficult stretches, and May’s composure prevents the song from becoming maudlin. “All for You” keeps things slow, but May shifts quickly from from a breeze to a smolder. She sounds sexy, and Darrell Highan’s guitar solo matches her steam for sweat.
It’d be easy and fun enough to discuss the other originals on the album, but it might be more worthwhile to dwell on the playful choice of “Tainted Love” as a cover. The performance really drives home the heart of the song. May sings it aggressively, and the song takes off like it’s something new, using the energy of the album that’s preceded it to become a statement of its own. May and her band’s ability to turn a radio staple into a showstopper might alone be enough to prove how much this act has to say.