10 Track, LP (2011, Source/MGM)
Related: Abbe May.
Why do critics insist on comparing women only to each other? Having too long been segregated like public toilets, there’s a new generation of musicians no longer content to be lumped together within the arbitrary concept of gender. After 10-plus years in the macho business of rock n roll – from her green days fronting Bunbury pub rockers The Fuzz to her moody blues-inspired solo projects – WA’s Abbe May has slowly but surely joined the league of gentlewomen challenging the, yes I’ll say it, male canon of music.
Design Desire is May’s third album in four years. After an awkward studio debut, Howl and Moan, was released to mixed reviews (cue comparisons to PJ Harvey) she quickly redeemed herself with a raw follow-up recorded live with backing band The Devil in 2009, Hoodoo You Do. She’s had several bands backing her talent, including ‘The Devil’, ‘The Perth Mint’ and ‘The Rockin’ Pneumonia’, the last of which lasted several line-up changes before she canned the entourage entirely last year.
That’s where we find Abbe May now, no longer reliant on a single set of dudes to prop her up (she’s perfectly capable of doing that herself) or having to surmount their manly egos musically (job security would make it too easy). Instead, she’s taken up with all kinds of local musicians, including collaborative fixtures Cam Avery and her brother Doug (aka KT Rumble), input from Tame Impala’s Jay Watson, and more.
Known for her self-possession and inscrutability both on and off stage, May’s refusal to be categorised is her greatest strength. She’s always maintained a commitment to what can be loosely termed “rock”, while clearly taking on other influences in her work. There’s the primitive blues of Howlin’ Wolf and the salacious sexual pun-making of Lucille Bogan, as well as the stock-standard contemporary female icons one deigns to even mention. This time around she takes on even more varied reference points and applies them to the slow cooked fever of an album that explores her sound and her sexuality. Finding a balance between band and vocal, she’s killed most of her old cock rock roar – which a less progressive fan might mourn – in favour of a more nuanced vocal delivery. She tests her range over the languid instrumentation of ‘No Sleep Tonight’, while offering her own dictate to gender role play in the implied funk of ‘Feeling Like a Man, Looking Like a Woman’.
Whether she realises it or not, May owes a lot to the aesthetic sensibility of camp and in detecting the breathy, high-pitched R&B of Prince in ‘You Could Be Mine’ one suspects she probably does. She still harks back to her roots, by offering a re-imagining of an old demo number ‘Carolina’ over a drum machine and grinding bass line, while ‘Mammalian Locomotion’ and the less-than-subtle innuendo of ‘Blood River’ make no secret of what’s really on her mind. Note the gender-neutral pronouns and mystic symbolism in songs like ‘Taurus Chorus’ and ‘Universes’ where you’ll find an artist not so interested in establishing an identity but in transcending it entirely.
by Steph Kretowicz