With each soaring, emotive note, Hayley Mary makes up for Australian rock’s long-standing lack of strong female singers. Despite her pixie dimensions, The Jezabels’ vocalist commands the stage with an easy authority. No wonder they have the confidence to play by their own rules.
That misspelling of the Biblical name is deliberate, the band have maintained – something about reclaiming it from the fallen-woman image – and the Sydney group lack a bassist. It is been an optional position since White Stripes came to fame, though foursomes rarely avoid it. Not that their full-blooded alternative rock could strikes anyone as being especially eccentric. Debut album Prisoner has already been certified gold in their native Australia ahead of its release here next month.
Mary is the undoubted star, with a voice that in its lower registers has the punky allure of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, with a purer, higher range that she usually keeps just the right side of operatic stridency. Her lyrics are just as widescreen - summers are endless and oceans deep and wide. Plus there is heroic scope in the backing, led by Nik Kaloper’s dense hard-metal drumming. Over that comes the more diaphanous contribution of guitarist Sam Lockwood, all post-Cocteau Twins shoegaze, while Heather Shannon shifts between classical piano flourishes and icy synth washes.
When the group focus their energies, they hit on a winning clarity with the stern pop of ‘Endless Summer’, as stark as New Order’s most crystalline moments. When set loose on ‘Long Highway’, their emo-style directness becomes overbearing, with Mary channelling Paramore’s Hayley Williams, her alarming screech causing a few punters to take a step back. Elsewhere, more delicate numbers lose impact in the sweaty club venue, most notably ‘Rosebud’ with its gothic line “I'll keep you rosebud of the morn”.
Jezabels rescue the night by delving back to numbers
that predate the forthcoming album, best of which is the epic ‘Hurt Me’, with
Mary’s yearning vocal backed by charging drums and Shannon’s doomy piano chords.
‘Dark Storm’ repeats the trick, while the players cut back to a spacious
grandiosity, as if devising the soundtrack to an Aussie Twilight movie. Certainly one of the
more distinctive acts to emerge from Down Under in recent years, Jezabels’
struggle to gel suggests success beyond their home is far from guaranteed. You
sense, though, that Mary could confidently fill much larger stages.