Show, Don’t Tell
Imelda May’s Tribal can be divided into two different albums: rockabilly and not rockabilly. Or perhaps this is a better formulation: bad, and not so bad. Before even listening to the album, the cover art, with its aggressive red font and the smoldering photo of Imelda May, says “I’m tough.” You expect to hear a snarling punk-rock barnburner, but instead you get watered down rockabilly complete with canned drums, plastic sounding guitars and some painted on grit.
This is all a little harsh, so lets delve into some of the good aspects of the album before returning to the negatives. Imelda May has a really nice voice. It’s sweet sounding, but husky enough to avoid being stretched thin. Tracks like “The Gypsy In Me,” “Wicked Way” and “Little Pixie” (the best song on the album) all find May at her most subdued and most natural sounding. She doesn’t try and act more “punk” than she is. Instead, she simply sings the melodies with a smooth, easy tone. As a result, her voice is able to take the starring role, masking the simplistic song writing and poor production (the trumpet on “Wicked Way” sounds like its coming straight out of a beat up Casio Keyboard).
Unfortunately (and here we return to the negatives), those are only three out of twelve songs. The remaining nine are far less pleasant. May’s voice is simply not gruff enough, not tough enough, to sing above the distorted rockabilly guitars she seems so fond of. The band always seems to push her out of the room, her vocals are just too pleasant to compete. This is not to say that the band is gruff either though. The guitar amps may be in overdrive, but the arrangements aren’t loose enough to sound as bad (in the Miles Davis sense of the word) as May wants them to. The call and response chorus on “I Wanna Dance” sounds equally as forced as the strained crack in May’s voice on “Tribal” (not to mention the echo effect that comes out of nowhere on an incongruous bridge).
What is most forced however, the albums biggest flaw, is that May just wants to be bad too badly. Most of the lyrics on the record are about her yearning to let her wild side out (she “grew into a werewolf” on “Wild Woman”) or all the naughty fun she’s had. But the lyrics just never match the sound, causing every song (aside from the three pleasant ones) to sound contrived. There is nothing less cool than trying too hard. Sometimes the easiest way to be bad is to just not talk about it so much.