[5 September 2006]
Some bands are improbably altered by suggestion. ‘The Coral Sea’ is dealt a double blow: the name suggests both the Coral (Britpop sea shanties) and the Cruel Sea (classic Aussie alt-country). All right, so maybe when I was anticipating receiving this CD in the mail I was thinking about a disc of Beatles-esque sea shanties and Supergrass-style quirky pop. Or maybe it was going to be some Southern California reinterpretation of alcohol-stained working man anthems. Add to the anticipation the throwing-off name of the singer and main songwriter Rey (not Ricardo) Villalobos, and you’ve got a whole lot of associative baggage for a small indie band to throw off.
The Coral Sea don’t do a bad job, overall, at carving out an individual voice: it’s certainly different from those three cultural markers namechecked in the first paragraph. The band is a guitar-based four-piece from Santa Barbara, California, that makes pretty, atmospheric pop with a great debt to the giants: U2, early Radiohead, so on and so forth.
These shimmering atmospherics are perfectly captured in “In This Moment’s Time”, which builds with atmospheric guitars in a gradual crescendo. It recalls West Australian atmosphere-pop balladeers the Panics, though Villalobos’ voice is thinner, reedier. When he sings “The chemicals were made for her”, he sounds almost like a mellowed-out, relaxed Brian Molko. He shines on the softer ballads, since his voice doesn’t have the epic swoop of Chris Martin or Tom Chaplin from Keane. On “In Between the Days”, Villalobos settles easily into the song’s Syd Matters-like acoustic/electro ballad shell, allowing the singer to warble with his fragile voice, beautiful and disappointed.
Occasionally, though, the singer’s voice fails to match the lush accompaniment. On “Lake and Ocean” it sounds a little too open, immature—coming across as conventional, somehow forced, not quite genuine. “It’s uneasy but it’s true”, he sings, matching how the listener feels.
Mostly, though, this pretty balladry and soft-pedal wall of guitar sound for the choruses and climaxes is quite effective. “Yesterday/Tomorrow” opens with a slow-bowed string quartet figure, more a basic harmonic progression than a melody, but it sets atmosphere fine. When the ambient guitar takes over, the pop progression works in the way Ed Harcourt’s conventional melodies are affecting. The band’s melodic limitations (never straying far from the tonic, sticking to major, recognized pop tunes) shouldn’t be a big problem for pop consumers—has recycling ever really been a big issue? The truth is, the Coral Sea commit to their pretty tunes wholeheartedly, and that’s all we can really ask for—better “Yesterday/Tomorrow” Bends-isms than a fabricated backing track.
“Look at Her Face” is your typical soaring first single: let it in when your guard’s down and the melody seems a necessity, though it’s really disposable. And one question: if you’re going to use the same melody twice (one chorus—“Look at Her Face”, one verse “Under the Westway”), why place the songs back to back on your CD?
You could say, overall, Volcano and Heart is a bit of a guilty pleasure. It’s not going to win many awards for innovation, but the band’s attractive, atmospheric compositions have their own charm. It may be a tried formula, but it’s one that works.