[19 September 2010]
If, as has been observed, one of the UK’s primary exports is pop music, Liverpool has certainly functioned as one of its main hubs of extraction. The self-evidence of the Beatles and their Scouse contemporaries being the vanguard of the ‘60s British Invasion. Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Pete Wylie and others forming Merseyside’s contribution to the new wave of the ‘70s. At the turn of the ‘90s, we had the La’s and their brilliant if fatally indolent frontman, Lee Mavers. Even as recently as the Britpop era, Liverpool managed to respectably hold its own with groups like the Boo Radleys, Cast, and the Lightning Seeds. (The less said about the likes of Flock of Seagulls and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the better.)
These days, however, it’s difficult to be as savvy about what’s vital and happening from such formerly booming creative energy centers. And it’s not just Liverpool, but really from anywhere in the UK, partly because there’s so much out there, partly because most of the attention paid to it seems to come more from a desperation to prop up the onetime equally booming UK music press than from any actual musical merit. Cynical, maybe, but can you tell the difference between Muse, Razorlight, or the Fratellis, to name but three recent press-darling combos? I can’t.
Which brings us to Liverpool band the Coral; they’ve been around since the tail end of the Britpop scene, and squeezed as much ink from the UK rock hack establishment (as manifest in mags like Mojo and Uncut) as any other. And they mean probably as much to the average Yank rock fan as the aforementioned troika of groups—and honestly, why should they care? The answer being: If one is a fan of sophisticated, imaginative songsmithery with a decidedly Pacific bent, you could do far worse than to give the Coral and their latest disc Butterfly House a listen.
Yes, the music of Coral frontman James Skelly and his assembled sextet does, at times, give off distinct whiffs of West Coast rock of yore: a drifting billow of vocal harmonies here, a dalliance with Eastern or Mideast tonal structures there; garnish with twelve-string and serve. Which is in itself not an unusual thing for Liverpudlians, if one thinks of, say, Ian McCulloch’s similar dabblings on Bunnymen songs like “The Cutter”. Skelly’s vocal phrasing on songs like Butterfly House‘s opening track, “More Than a Lover”, even resembles McCulloch’s, minus the latter‘s fondness for drama. Even so, the Coral’s post-millennial psych take is conveyed with such wistfulness and delicacy that it works somehow. Retro, perhaps, but in a good way. (Never an easy thing to pull off: West Coast music being, after all, as much about the Eagles as it is Arthur Lee.)
There is much that appeals on Butterfly House: the yearn and romance of folk-infused ballads like “Roving Jewel” and “Green Is the Colour”; the cheerful ocean breeziness of “Sandhills”, with its Brian Wilson-styled fadeout of tremeloed bass and melodica; the startling guitar firestorm that rises from the mentholated vocal choir dominating “1000 Years”. The only drawback would appear to be John Leckie’s production, which is perhaps too glossy and mannered. To their credit, Skelly and cohorts do have occasion to kick against Leckie’s sheen, the most intense example being the instrumental fireworks of the album’s finale, “North Parade”.
The present glut of aspiring British bands has never more seemed like an expanse of flotsam adrift on the seas of pop culture. The Coral’s Butterfly House exists as a welcoming aural paradis—though, thankfully, not an Oasis.