If Only the Coals Burned a Little Brighter
If you’re not a very good lyricist, perhaps you should think twice about referencing Leonard Cohen in the title of your album. Taken from a line in Cohen’s prayer-poem “How We Used to Approach the Book of Changes: 1966”, the titular image of this album refers to a man who sees himself as “No saint for those in pain / No singer, no musician, no master of anything, no / Friend to my friends, no lover to those who love me” and who is asking God to let him be “For a moment in / This miserable and bewildering wretchedness, a happy animal.” Not even a second on this record comes close to – or even suggests – the same sort of raw emotional power conjured up by Cohen in the space of a few words.
Rifling through old poetry collections of that caliber, it’s easy to wonder where Jason Mandell and the Coals went wrong. For instance, witness the failure of “Redeem Me”, the opening track of the album. Flirting with religious themes, the song begins with a sound bite from an L.A. street preacher, who claims, “Destruction is coming to Los Angeles! God will destroy Los Angeles for all of its sins!” At the start of a Manic Street Preachers tune, that snippet might make some sense, but in this context it sounds like a limp joke. Because, instead of being assailed by a sinuous punk guitar riff, you are gently approached by fingerpicked acoustic and Mandell’s road-weary voice, asking a woman to “redeem” him. If you were expecting a song of sin and hellfire, then you will be sorely disappointed.
Instead, the song acts as introduction to the album’s protagonist: a man pining after a woman. I say protagonist because, though this is not a concept album, the Coals go seven for eight in songs about a man’s unrequited love for a woman over the course of A Happy Animal. (I discount the Warren Zevon tribute “Maria” because it’s about a relationship other than the narrator’s.) Normally, this single-minded lyrical premise is fine: so long as the writer in question can turn a phrase, all is forgiven. But Mandell makes forgiveness awfully hard with lyrics like: “Love is a long, long road / I know you just ain’t so” (from “Steal My Heart”), so what, exactly? Or how about: “I’ll never forget you / As hard as I try / I shouldn’t have let you / Whisper goodbye” (from “Let Me Down Easy”)? I admit that it feels a little cruel offering these lines up for ridicule; after all, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. No one will groan over their outright stupidity or ungrammaticality. The problem is that they’re just boring.
But despite major lyrical difficulties, the album is not entirely a snoozefest. In strictly musical terms, this Los Angeles group actually has a lot of potential. Unlike so many others jumping on the folkie bandwagon these days, the Coals have drunk deep at the well of folk tradition. At one point or another during the album, you can hear strains of Dixieland, Texan swing, Southern rock, and even Tejano. And, better than most, they know how to place these influences accordingly. For example, the accordion in the latter half of “Let Me Down Easy” is as perfect an accompaniment as it gets (if somewhat wasted on a dull song). The same might be said of the use of slide guitar in “Lord Lord Lord”. I imagine that with an electric guitar here and there, they could sound a bit like early-career Little Feat. If only, I suppose, they wrote about fat men in bathtubs.
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