More so even than initiating a backlash against a widely acclaimed album, vehemently excoriating the work of an established artist who's fallen out of favor and allegedly degenerated into 'dinosaurism' or genuflecting over the latest flavor of the week that's being hailed as the apotheosis of hipness (until the inevitable backlash, that is), the single process that music critics derive the most pride and satisfaction from is the act of discovery.
For a rock critic nothing can match the narcissistic gratification of discovering a new, unheard of group, an act that enables them to, if the group succeeds, appear prescient and insightful. Thus critics scour the world for promising new ensembles to herald as the saviors of rock music, unknown rock outfits that they can be the 'first' to perceive the genius of.
The Coral conform to nearly every category that such a critic could desire; much like the Beatles they hail from a small, obscure British town; they're unusually young, with frontman James Skelly being the senior at age 21; they're retro at a time when sixties tribute artists are garnering a lot of attention; they're untainted by the commercial machine that is contemporary music; and they have artistic pretensions without ever taking themselves too seriously.
There's one key factor that differentiates the Coral from the plethora of other groups who fit this description, however, which is that their level of talent merits the myriad accolades hastily heaped upon them by the me-too critical community that seized upon their debut the moment the single Shadows Fall charted in the UK, a success that propelled the album to the top ten selling CDs in the band's home country, a commercial breakthrough that even the group's most ardent supporters could never have hoped for or anticipated.
The Coral's sound is somewhat anachronistic, as nearly all their material is informed by a distinctively sixties vibe that very clearly intentionally permeates both the arrangements and production. That said, the Coral also possess a unique identity of their own as is reflected in their idiosyncratic, deeply eclectic songwriting style.
In addition to an impressive facility for generating strong melodies, one of the band's chief assets is the stunning level of diversity on the album. While nearly all the content is filtered through their signature sixties modality, there's certainly ample room in that genre for boundless experimentation and sonic exploration.
Thus the Coral's eponymous debut boasts everything from Nuggets style rockers (like I Remember When) to irresistible pop (like Dreaming Of You) to psychotic, psychedelic rave-ups (like Skeleton Key). The band, without being virtuosos, do full justice to every style they tackle, taking inspiration from their influences without ever copying them.
There are no weak tracks on the album, as each number sports a solid-to-excellent melody and a disarmingly charming retro vibe. The opener, Spanish Main, is an eccentric sea shanty that functions brilliantly as an opener thanks to both its extreme brevity and its infectious energy.
I Remember When comes next with its adroitly implemented contrast between its subdued, moody verses and furious, rocking refrain. I Remember When is followed by the album's hit single, Shadows Fall, which despite its commercial success does little to distinguish itself as a highlight on the CD. It's still quite strong, and eminently worthy of inclusion on the album, but the fact of the matter is that I'm mystified by the manner in which the song has been elevated above the rest of the debut.
Dreaming Of You is pure pop bliss while Simon Diamond is a captivating foray into the world of Barrette-esque psychotic nursery rhymes that leads into Goodbye, which is a definite highlight on the album. While all of its vocal melodies and harmonies are stellar, what truly stands out about the song is its stunning riff (which I've always found to be eerily reminiscent of Disney's It's A Small World chorus). All these factors come together to create a song that would have been at home in the sixties without ever sounding dated or overly familiar in today's rock climate.
Waiting For The Heartaches, despite some lyrics that are irksome in their stupidity, is still a great track with a topnotch melody, while Skeleton Key, as I alluded to before, is sonic psychosis at its finest, with its bizarre nature accentuated by guitarwork that recalls Captain Beefheart more than a Nuggets collection.
Wildfire is another highlight that's considerably more subtle than its manic predecessor while Bad Man is straightforward but immensely entertaining, brawny rock. Next comes the brilliant Calendars And Clocks, followed by a hidden track that's quite impressive in its own right (though I've never been a fan of the concept of being forced to listen to two minutes of silence and the preceding track in its entirety every time I want to hear a certain song).
Thus the Coral's self-titled debut is an extremely auspicious first effort, featuring a sixties sensibility that enriches the album without defining or composing it. The CD marries superb melodies to a diverse array of music styles, dispelling any potential monotony to ensure that the album remains gripping throughout.
While the album's influences are transparent, the Coral's homage to their inspirations manifests itself in the form of affectionate allusions as opposed to anything that could be termed plagiaristic, or even the least bit overt in the melody department. The group simply excel when immersing themselves in a mock sixties paradigm, choosing the format not to use as a crutch but rather because it effectively complements their own original ideas as songwriters.
The performances are, predictably enough, deeply rooted in the sixties style, though a clear step above the amateurish garage rock that dominates the Nuggets sets. Whether it be during psychedelic excursions or driving rockers, the group infuse a certain authenticity into the portrayals of their favorite genres, and the old fashioned production serves to further reinforce this effect.
Ultimately the Coral's debut is simply a very good album and an immensely enjoyable experience. The group emulate their heroes without ever compromising their own identity, and the resulting package is a product that should appeal to fans of both sixties and indie rock alike.
Evidently a year's time can have a profound effect on a band's sound, as the Coral's sophomore outing, Magic And Medicine, displays some dramatic changes from 2002's stunning debut.
Whereas the Coral's first album was a charmingly chaotic medley of creative ideas and imaginative experimentation, Magic And Medicine is a comparatively subdued product, likely an attempt on the band's part to be more adult and serious. While this was a necessary step for the group to take, that reality doesn't change the fact that the excitement level of the debut has been somewhat diluted by this supposed maturation; there was a manic energy and an air of unpredictability that animated every second of the Coral's eponymous outing, and to some extent this has been lost amidst this more conservative venture.
Even more disheartening is the band's revised stance on facsimiles of sixties output. A certain sixties vibe was sustained for the duration of the group's debut, but this never extended to direct impersonations, merely knowing nods to their influences. On Magic And Medicine, however, the Coral showcase a number of individual tracks that emulate a single specific artist, a level of mimicry that the band wisely abstained from in their past works.
While it's entertaining to listen to the Coral ape certain rock figures of years past, it causes a rather disconcerting deficit in the creativity department. The band are talented enough that they don't need to rely on specific artists for the foundations of their sound, and this new model limits what the Coral are capable of on any given track.
Notable mimicries include the Dylan homage Talkin' Gypsy Market Blues (and anyone with even a passing knowledge of Zimmerman would infer whose style this song is emulating from the title alone) and the Doors impersonation on Secret Kiss. Both tracks are quite good, but it's difficult to separate them from the context of the original artists which greatly curtails the band's efforts to present them as fully realized, self-contained songs.
Nevertheless, there's still much to laud about the Coral's second outing. The songwriting remains consistently strong, though admittedly it lacks the immediacy and striking nature demonstrated on the debut. Even so there are more than enough memorable melodies to retain one's interest, with standouts including the rocker Don't Think You're The First, the gorgeous Liezah and the streak of quality numbers that extends from track nine (Careless Hands) to the closer (Confessions Of A.D.D.D.). Despite my earlier somewhat disparaging remarks about its lack of originality Secret Kiss is very strong, even if it does come off as secondhand Doors and obviously can't hope to capture the tenebrous magic of a real Morrison song.
Thus, while something of a disappointment, Magic And Medicine is still quite a solid affair. While it lacks the instant gratification that the Coral's debut offered, it's still a highly enjoyable listen and its relative subtlety has a certain charm of its own. While the band relies far too much on their influences this time around, making some numbers feel more like musical fan fiction than actual songs, for the most part the band keeps these impersonation impulses in check, making for a listen that may not be as rewarding as their debut but is still quite a strong product in its own right.
In many respects Magic And Medicine felt like a self-conscious attempt to produce a great album; the CD was a good deal more mature and serious than its predecessor, while its musical mimicries were meticulously fashioned so as to capture every nuance of their influences. As a result of this profoundly structured approach the album lost some of the fluidity and spontaneity that informed the Coral's debut; calling Magic And Medicine forced would be an exaggeration of this dynamic, but the CD certainly feels rather calculated and intricately choreographed.
These elements aren't inherently deleterious to an album, but in the case of the Coral they constitute something of a liability. On Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker the band regain their unpredictable, organic feel; the album was produced in under seven days, and these recording conditions are reflected in the chaotic, frenzied and manic atmosphere cultivated throughout the album.
In this regard Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker hearkens back more to the eccentrically zany approach of the Coral's debut than their more deliberately paced and premeditated sophomore effort, signifying that the band, at least in this stage of their development, yields better results when simply having fun in the studio as opposed to struggling to forge a magnum opus.
Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker exudes a relaxed, casual feel that's not only inviting but likewise conducive toward accentuating the group's strengths. Listening to the band unwind in the studio it becomes clear that they're at their best when simply throwing out idea after idea, reveling in their creativity and imagination. While Magic And Medicine was quite a strong product, its regimented feel curtailed the band's creative process, forcing them to limit the scope of their musical ingenuity.
Of course, Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker's medley of disparate creative ideas wouldn't work without strong songwriting, but in this department the Coral have yet to disappoint. There are no truly weak tracks, and highlight abound, from the psychedelic riff rocker Precious Eyes to the moody Sorrow Of The Song to the ominous Song Of The Corn to the Fall homage I Forgot My Name to the infectiously catchy Grey Harpoon.
Harboring a healthy eclecticism that results in material ranging from the rocker Venom Cable to the anachronistically old fashioned Lovers Paradise, the Coral seldom repeat themselves, offering something new with every track. This is especially important on Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker, as thanks to the album's diminutive length (a mere thirty minutes overall) the band are forced to restrict themselves to truly stellar tracks so as to compensate for the CD's extreme brevity, ensuring that despite the short runtime the album has enough substance to sustain a full length endeavor.
Thus Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker is yet another eminently worthwhile outing from the Coral, a showcase for their impeccable songwriting and energetic, spontaneous approach to music. What would feel rushed in the hands of another group feels exciting here, resulting in a final product that's both unique and accomplished, a rarity in the current musical environment.
As demonstrated on the solid but flawed Magic And Medicine, maturation is by no means an inherently positive phenomenon for a band, and acutely disagreed with the Coral on their sophomore effort.
This doesn't indicate, however, that the Coral would never benefit from this brand of serious progression, merely that they embraced it a tad prematurely on their second outing and thus suffered from some deleterious effects of this all too hasty, forced development.
Ergo it wasn't until the band's fourth venture, the stellar The Invisible Invasion, that the Coral were ready to reap the rewards of a true artistic maturation. On Magic And Medicine the band had yet to fully establish an identity for themselves, a situation that was profoundly exacerbated by their attempt at crafting a more mature product. The result was a procession of tracks that blurred the lines between homage and plagiarism, often unhealthily veering toward the latter.
The band had always heavily flirted with the styles of their influences, but on albums like their eponymous debut this was compensated for by the sheer volume of disparate ideas and its charmingly chaotic mania which effectively diluted the extent of the group's imitations.
Thanks to its more mature structure, however, on Magic And Medicine the group was unable to conceal the transparency and flagrancy of their impersonations; lacking the perpetual onslaught of ideas present on their debut and Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker there was nothing with which to conceal or deemphasize the Coral's obvious emulations of their inspirations, thus detracting from the freshness and creativity of the album.
Thus the band's attempted maturation arrived far too early in their career and they suffered accordingly, wisely aborting this artistic direction and returning to their customary entropic eccentricity on their third project.
One would assume that the band would be reluctant to attempt another maturation of this nature so shortly after their previous gambit had proven largely unsuccessful. Magic And Medicine was quite a strong affair, but its flaws were glaring, and thus one would surmise that another such venture would be reserved for far later in the group's existence.
Nevertheless on The Invisible Invasion the band indeed once again try their hand at crafting a more serious, mature work, and this time around it works brilliantly. James Skelly has progressed immeasurably as a songwriter, largely eschewing his 'sixties tribute band' mode that had been his crutch at the beginning of the band's life-cycle. Thus while The Invisible Invasion is highly song oriented (as opposed to the Coral's first and third CDs which had each operated as more of an overall album experience), as Magic And Medicine had been, this time around the tracks are far more original, boasting unique and catchy melodies that rarely betray their influences to the degree that the band's earlier work had.
The Coral are still clearly inspired by sixties rock music, but on The Invisible Invasion they opt to assimilate their influences into their own style rather than producing thinly veiled versions of classic rock staples. The album's maturity serves to better showcase the group's prodigious talents, as the CD presents a set of songs that are eminently conducive toward highlighting the band's superb songwriting and highly capable performances.
When the Coral attempted a similar feat on Magic And Medicine the end result was emphasizing the songs' derivative nature and paucity of fresh ideas and creative melodies, and the fact that the band's songs now hold up to even the closest critical scrutiny without appearing the least bit unoriginal or uninventive is a testament to the extent to which the Coral have grown as an indie rock outfit.
The Invisible Invasion is bereft of any weak tracks, as each number boasts a strong, memorable melody, with ample diversity to prevent the album from ever growing monotonous. The opener, She Sings The Mourning, is a perfect introduction, displaying the extent of the band's evolution by offering a melody that instantly ranks amongst the best tunes penned by Skelly and company.
The album continues to demonstrate the band's incredible growth with the moody Cripples Crown, followed by the nostalgic So Long Ago and the unsettlingly charming The Operator. Next comes another highlight in the form of A Warning To The Curious before segueing into the mellow, genial In The Morning, which while quite strong is one of the album's weaker moments, rendering its status as the CD's first single mystifying to say the least.
Something Inside Of Me is a hyper catchy pop rocker that would have been a far wiser candidate for first single, Come Home is another winner and Far From The Crowd is quite moving. Leaving Today is hardly nondescript yet it yields less of a lasting impression, but repeated listens reveal it to be yet another strong track, while Arabian Sand is a stellar rocker with an unforgettable refrain.
This leaves the album's closer; Late Afternoon ends the CD in rather innocuous fashion, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as if affords the listener the chance to unwind after a rather demanding (yet highly rewarding) set of material.
The Invisible Invasion is simply a great album, a humongous leap over anything the Coral had produced before. The material is exceptionally strong, as each song is a fully developed, fleshed out and meticulously crafted creation, a far cry from the entertaining yet often shallow fragments that dominated the likes of Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker or the parade of thinly veiled mimicries that constituted the bulk of Magic And Medicine.
As immensely entertaining as the band's debut and Nightfreak And The Songs Of Becker were, the Coral's maturation was a necessary ingredient for elevating the group to the next level as rock artists. Their development needed to be accompanied by a dynamic that would better complement their more serious work, and thus they never could have progressed to this extent if their albums retained the frenzied, frenetic approach they'd employed in the past.
With The Invisible Invasion the Coral have established themselves as one of the premier groups in the indie movement, featuring topnotch songwriting, an irresistible sound and skillful, adroit implementation of all of their varied ideas and styles. The band's debut, Magic And Medicine and Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker are all highly accomplished works, but it's on The Invisible Invasion that the band is truly catapulted to the next level.
While an 11 is still a very high rating, one would assume that the substantial two point plummet between The Invisible Invasion and Roots & Echoes denotes some ill advised stylistic paradigm shift or radical deviation in the group's musical philosophy. When an album becomes labeled as a disappointment one naturally looks for some cause to attribute this qualitative deficit to, some sinister element in a band's sound that would account for the disparity between the relative merit of a group's recent outing and their superior prior work.
Such is not always the case, however; while admittedly a far less dramatic scenario, often the culprit behind a lesser album is merely a brief deterioration in the songwriting department. A group's output can't always adhere to their highest standards, and thus it's inevitable that some of their work will simply be less inspired than their usual fare. Ergo as opposed to the root of Root's & Echoes' lesser stature being some conspicuous, easy to discern musical malady the fact of the matter is merely that on this go-round Skelly composed a decidedly weaker set than on his magnum opus The Invisible Invasion, an occurrence that's perfectly natural in the career of a young, gifted songwriter.
This compositional inferiority largely manifests itself in the form of a curious preponderance of bland, mellow numbers that fail to engage the listener in the manner that the group's better work always has. While this mellowness can, on occasion, be somewhat charming, particularly when accompanied by at least a semblance of a catchy melody as on Jaqueline and Cobwebs, by and large these tracks are rather tepid, albeit never offensive or painful to listen to.
Worst of all are tracks like Put The Sun Back, a sappy, insipid, wholesome anthem of the variety that the Coral had managed to mostly evade on their past contributions. This particularly odious number boasts cringe-inducing lyrics and an overly familiar, nondescript melody, criticisms that previously couldn't have been leveraged against even the worst tracks from the band.
Fortunately this procession of mellow mediocrity is compensated for by a handful of truly stellar rock songs. The group were far too talented to release an album bereft of some classic Coral tunes, ensuring that Roots & Echoes isn't too much of a blemish on their young, promising careers.
Who's Gonna Find Me is an ideal opener, a catchy rock song with a memorable fuzzy riff and a plentiful supply of great vocal hooks. Remember Me is a decent if unexceptional moody rocker, but songs like the captivating, haunting Fireflies are anything but unexceptional, as the latter has an understated, beautiful, almost stately charm about it that differentiates it from not only the rest of the album but the band's greater oeuvre as well.
In The Rain is the album's best cut, an incredible, eminently catchy rocker with a minimalistic yet moody riff and a terrific melody. Elsewhere She's Got A Reason is a strong track drenched in the band's signature faux-sixties style while the closer, Music At Night, is another departure from the Coral's norm, a dark epic that ends the album in a fashion somewhat reminiscent of the way that tracks like When The Music's Over concluded Strange Days, which is a high compliment indeed.
Thus Roots & Echoes is a solid but somewhat underwhelming listen, sporting enough strong tracks to justify a purchase but sufficiently dragged down by its filler that it fails to constitute the classic it clearly aspires to be. The songwriting on the album simply fails to match that of the Coral's better work, and the result is a CD that, while it has nothing blatantly wrong with it, just doesn't measure of to the high standards that the band have set for themselves over the course of their still early careers.
With an album like the Dukes Of Stratosphear's Chips From The Chocolate Fireball, half the fun comes from spotting the plethora of specific sixties influences that permeate the CD. This does make the Dukes something of a novelty act, but in their case that's more than excusable given the backlog of highly original and profoundly creative material in XTC's canon.
For a 'real' group, however, cleaving overly closely to their influences will invariably restrict their creative freedom and prevent them from developing their own artistic identity. There's nothing wrong with finding inspiration in a certain style, and taking a few pointers from a favorite artist is by no means a bad thing, but if a band religiously adheres to the template of a specific rock act then it will doubtless prove detrimental to their creative growth.
If a rock group doesn't establish a unique artistic voice for themselves, they risk being lost amidst the crowds of derivative me-too generic knockoffs and all-too-limited tribute bands. A group that plans to enjoy much in the way of longevity will inevitably discover that it's hard to cultivate interest in what's essentially a rehash. This doesn't simply apply to blatantly obvious homage or parody; nearly any group will find it detrimental to their success if they emulate their influences too closely.
When taking this into consideration it's easy to understand why the farther The Coral stray from direct imitation the better they become. James Skelly is a prodigiously gifted songwriter, and by shaking off the shackles of transparent hero-worship he's become free to develop his own style and hone his craft. Thus The Coral have become far more than a lost chapter in a Nuggets box-set. The band certainly retain a measure of their tried and true sixties-influenced approach, but they don't allow this to prevent them from fashioning their own musical identity.
The result is that Butterfly House feels like a Coral album rather than a sixties-tribute album, and while this may seem like an issue of semantics in reality it's a very important step for the band to take. The Invisible Invasion was the first album to truly break away from The Coral's old mold and eschew the trappings of overt imitation, and with each successive LP the band make further strides in this direction.
This isn't to say that Butterfly House is a better album than The Invisible Invasion, however. On the contrary, I definitely find The Invisible Invasion to be the superior outing. This can primarily be attributed to the fact that this time around Skelly's songwriting is a bit on the erratic side, much like on Butterfly House's immediate predecessor, Roots And Echoes.
For the most part Skelly understands his group's strengths, but unfortunately things tend to turn awry when The Coral operate in a more mellow mode. The band are at their best when their songs have a certain 'edge' to them, be it an alluring moodiness or energetic exuberance, but songs like Falling All Around You are bereft of anything even remotely resembling 'edge' at all.
One needn't worry, however, as Butterfly House boasts myriad certified Coral classics as well. The title track is a definite highlight, a moody, melancholic and often beautiful track featuring gorgeous vocal harmonies, an incredible riff and a hard-rocking coda that adroitly complements the stately manner of the body of the song.
The lush Green Is The Colour nearly matches the title track in beauty, but one needn't worry that The Coral have forgotten how to rock. More conventional Coral rockers bookmark the album, namely the superb More Than A Lover and North Parade. She's Come Around carries on in that tradition with a stellar vocal melody accompanied by exhilarating riffage.
As far as moodiness goes, other prime candidates include 1000 Years, which sports a terrific refrain and seductive atmospherics. Far more unnerving, however, is the haunting Coney Island, complete with a coda that's genuinely viscerally unsettling.
Despite some weaker cuts like Sandhills and Walking In The Winter, all of which hold mellowness chief amongst their vices, Butterfly House is a very good album. The Coral have made great strides toward forging their own identity, and this is apparent throughout this strong set of creative and idiosyncratic numbers. One may long for the unerring consistency of The Invisible Invasion, which still stands as the band's masterpiece, but Butterfly House remains an original and satisfying product from one of the premier acts in contemporary indie rock.