Rockabilly was the predominant matrix from which rock and roll emerged during the ’50s. The musicians combined contemporary rhythm and blues with country and western and pop, to create an electrifying new sound. Black artists like Chuck Berry and white ones such as Elvis Presley were considered dangerous by the arbiters of taste because their music carried the onus of race-mixing. Indeed, that added an element of frisson to the rockabilly mix, which also was associated with loose sexual behavior. The very earth-shattering elements of rockabilly’s importance during the ’50s always tie the music back to that time in history.
Imelda May, a young Irish female singer, performs rockabilly as if it time had not passed. She’s not retro or karaoke or whatever lame category you may associate with that description. May’s fresh and kicks serious butt. When she rocks out, she rocks out, no holds barred. So when May rants about a “Wild Woman”, we know that it’s the woman that lives inside her. She ferociously attacks the lyrics, growling and stuttering as needed to reveal the urgency exploding inside of her. Meanwhile, the guitars swirl and the drums pound to create the whirlwind in which May operates.
But May can be soft and purring as well. This is cat music, if you’re hep to what’s being laid down. She infectiously notes “It’s Good to Be Alive” with a shiny bravado to lift one out of the doldrums. And May can croon about a “Little Pixie”, a girl presumably like her own young daughter who can bring a smile to one’s face without even trying. But it’s the hard-driving thumpers where May shines best.
Fortunately, that’s the path May follows on most of her new record. When she goes “Round the Bend”, she deftly evokes the craziness of partying as if there’s no tomorrow. May belts out the nasty “Right Amount of Wrong” like she’s giving a tongue lashing to those who don’t understand that bad is good. And her reference to the “Hellfire Club” makes one want to go to unfriendly places in search of something deep, dark, and real, even if it leaves one deaf and dumb with fear. There are worse places to be than with the devil.
It doesn’t take a man to handle May; she sings that even “Five Good Men” won’t do, even if they treat her like a queen. May’s being funny, but she sings with strong conviction. That combination of tongue in cheek humor and deadpan seriousness pervades the album. If you think rockabilly’s a joke, the joke’s on you. It’s as serious as you want it to be,
Rockabilly was the subcultural expression of baby boomers who found liberation in rebelling against the social mores of race and sex during a time of Cold War conformity. What some people call subcultures, May identifies as “Tribal” as on the title track. Of course, we live in different times. The US Supreme Court has basically ruled that racism is over in America. One can find all the sex you need on the internet. But the idea that partying itself is a revolutionary idea remains constant, if even more meaningful in the 24/7 world of work never being over. May understands a hard rock beat ignites the primal, instinctual critique of the modern world. She celebrates the eternal value of that notion.