The trend for young women singing throwback soul and R&B has seemed faddish ever since Mark Ronson's plasticised approximation of 1960's grit turned Amy Winehouse into an international sensation. The debut EP by Melbourne singer Meg Mac (real name Megan McInerney) is heavily indebted to soul music of the Stax and Motown variety, but Meg Mac doesn't recreate the sound, as much as she repurposes it, marrying it beautifully to subtle electronic textures that create a contemporary-sounding set of songs infused with real vulnerability, anger and hope.
Meg Mac is not an outsized personality like fellow soul revivalists such as cockney rebel Adele, or flame-haired fashion-victim Paloma Faith, but makes up for her rather demure presence with her bold, musky contralto. Her voice is not a conventionally pretty one and possesses a sharpened edge that makes it hit hard and cut deep. This is most apparent on woman-scorned anthem "Every Lie," which preceded the EP in single form, where the verses feature a melody so knotty that the only thing keeping it from falling apart is the sturdiness of McInerney's vocal performance. Even the "na na na" vocals that close the track are rife with the song's vengeful fury.
The centrepiece of this five-song EP is a cover of Bill Withers' tender soul song "Grandma's Hands." It is emblematic of Meg Mac's approach to a classic sound, replacing the smoky guitars and organs of the original with a downtempo trip-hop beat, soaked in reverb and coloured with chattering sonic detritus, muted handclaps and what seems to be a truncated sample of a voice shouting in praise. The outstanding production on the track is matched by the way in which Meg Mac burrows deep into the song with her voice, delicately finding every pocket of melody in the verse and turning Withers' poignant moans (which were famously sampled on Blackstreet's "No Diggity") into bursts of ecstasy.
The EP begins and ends with the most traditional songs in Meg Mac's small repertoire. Piano-led closing track "Known Better," the first song McInerney ever released under the name Meg Mac, is flavoured with tambourine, organ, and - like all five tracks on the EP - the backing vocal's of McInerney's sister Hannah. "Known Better" is a perfectly fine song, but it comes across as somewhat restrained and it is actually the least interesting of the five tracks contained on the EP. "Roll Up Your Sleeves" is cut from a similar cloth to "Known Better," but captures a more confident singer than that song does. "Roll Up Your Sleeves" is a simple but genuinely uplifting piece of gospel-tinged pop.
At this point, Meg Mac's music does still feel somewhat derivative, but her embrace of classic American R&B comes across as very honest and heartfelt. Touches like the stuttering, mechanised beat on "Turning," which also features tinny, hyper-compressed guitar and the ghosts of a brass section hanging nearly imperceptibly in the background, create something truly memorable, and for an EP containing only five songs, there is a lot here to love. At the centre of it all is that voice, an instrument so steely, sultry and assured that it is impossible to argue with it.