Seeing The Coral perform their latest single on a recent episode of the BBC's Top of the Pops was a truly surreal experience for those who saw it. Appearing between flashy acts like Benny Benassi's scantily clad crew lip-synching and grinding to his cheesy "Satisfaction", and the propulsive dance-funk of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love", here was this modest sextet from Northwest England, performing a happy little acoustic number, all of them standing politely, looking and sounding like they came straight from 1965, as singer James Skelly stood before his microphone stand, tambourine in hand, looking like The Byrds' Gene Clark. It was a strange contrast, with this group of young men with their shamelessly retro folk rock, playing their song on the lavish Top of the Pops set. They might as well have been playing "I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better" at the Hard Rock Casino.
Hailing from the small coastal village of Hoylake, not far from Liverpool, The Coral, aged between 19 and 21, came seemingly from out of nowhere with their self-titled debut album in 2002. The Coral was a confident, energetic, audacious album, one of the freshest debuts the UK had seen in recent years, and it added some much-needed flavor to the UK rock scene, which had been growing stale as of late. A spellbinding mixture of Merseybeat, '60s garage rock, ska, blues, neo-psychedelia, and if that weren't strange enough, sea chanteys, that album was the kind that could only come from a bunch of crazed kids who didn't know any better, who were ballsy enough to think of pulling something like this off. The thought of what the band would try on their follow-up was enough to get fans just a bit excited at the prospects.
The Coral are such throwbacks, that like the '60s bands they draw their sound from, they've wasted no time whatsoever in releasing their second album. Magic and Medicine has The Coral trying hard to mature their sound, and while they succeed every once in a while, it starts to sound a little too mature, as you begin to notice that youthful energy is painfully absent from this record. Gone are the touches of ska. Gone are the joyful doo wop harmonies that we heard on "Dreaming of You". And gone are the sea chanteys (hey, we all know that gimmick wouldn't have lasted another album). Instead, this band has streamlined their sound, and as a result, this album sounds more like The Animals than anything else, with heavy use of organ, blues guitar licks, and Skelly's fabulous, almost Eric Burdon-like voice.
Magic & Medicine is a considerably darker effort than the previous album, something you hear immediately, as Nick Power's dark organ notes introduce the murky "In the Forest", and Skelly intones, "So silently I peer through the trees / My misery was in her beauty." Drummer Ian Skelly doesn't join in until two minutes into the song, but just as the momentum starts to build and you start to expect a payoff, the song comes to an abrupt, unsettling halt. A happy album this is not. The twisted, upbeat folk rock of "Bill McCai" masks a very dark theme, as James Skelly sings of a miserable middle-aged man: "And every day when he gets the train / Looks out the window and thinks in vain / If I could only be that boy again." Instead of ending happily, the band opts for a much bleaker ending ("Hung himself out in the rain"), as Skelly and his mates seem to tease the dead protagonist, sneering, "Bye, bye Bill McCai . . ." The sweet, Belle & Sebastian-meets-Paul McCartney melody of "Liezah" underscores Skelly's tale of a manipulative girl ("So lawyers, doctors please beware / Of that girl with wavy hair / For she will cut you down to size / Reveal the truth behind your disguise"), while Skelly's voice shines on the Nuggets style blues of "Talkin' Gypsy Market Blues".
The Coral hit the mark perfectly on the album's first two singles. "Don't Think You're the First", which was actually released as a single in the UK back in February, is an entrancing trip back in time, embodying all the best characteristics of psychedelic rock, with its creative percussion, its East Indian influence, and its simple, unwavering bass line, while managing to sound completely fresh and original. As Skelly waxes philosophical ("Don't think you're the last / To be tied to the past / While you future's controlled / By the present untold"), the song never becomes heavy-handed, the band sounding wise beyond their years. Meanwhile, the bouncy, acoustic "Pass It On" possesses one of those instantly memorable melodies that Paul McCartney pulled off in his 20s, sounding as easy and innocuous as someone whistling to himself while out for a walk. In keeping with the album's darker tone, however, that cute melody belies some more introspective lyrics from Skelly, as he openly considers his own mortality: "For every tear cried in shame / There'll be someone else to blame / And every crime that I commit / There'll be a punishment to fit."
Magic & Medicine would be a modest success if it weren't for a handful of songs that nearly ruin things. The organ-driven "Secret Kiss" and the cheesy "Careless Hands" get uncomfortably close to lounge act territory, while the lamentable "Milkwood Blues" has The Coral sounding like Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, had the Magic Band no inspiration or creativity whatsoever. "Eskimo Lament" is tepid and boring, and "All of Our Love" tries to be jazzy, but winds up being sleep-inducing instead. All the while, Skelly's lyrics get incredibly lazy, as he resorts to using such hackneyed lines like, "Rain, rain go away / Come back on a better day," and "Sugar and spice and all things nice." Compared to the album's better songs, such amateurish songwriting should be inexcusable.
Aside from the shimmering "Pass It On", which is stuck in the middle of the album's subpar second half, the only other highlight of the album's last third is the great, six-minute garage rocker, "Confessions of A.D.D.D.", but you still can't ignore the fact that nearly half the album is mediocre. Magic & Medicine shows some incredible growth, but it sounds like they needed more time to write a few more quality songs. The potential is still there, as its best moments are incredible, and hopefully The Coral will fully live up to it on their next record. In the meantime, this one, while very good at times, is little more than a squandered opportunity.