The Coral: Magic and Medicine / Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker
When it comes to new music, we rock critics are not unlike 15-year- old straight boys who have finally pilfered a copy of Jugs from the local five and dime. Bluntly put, we are quick to blow our collective wad. In fact, that's what years of rock 'n' roll listening has taught us -- it's not good unless it's fast, furious, and rousing; if it doesn't get us worked up, why even bother? But the problem with this is the inevitable tiring that comes after such explosive release. Only a chosen few maintain the ability to get us listeners excited time and time again.
The Coral, a lad band from England, are if anything the ultimate example of a group whose music spawned ferocious, if short-lived, excitement. The hype which surrounded them reached tottering and rarely seen heights, as music reviewers far and wide (including yours truly) scrambled to find a language to explain their wonder. And it's clear to see why when listening to their still un-categorizable self-titled debut from 2002. Well under an hour, The Coral album covered 40 years of sonic terrain (sometimes within a single song, or bar), attacking genres with ridiculous exuberance, scary nimbleness, and almost shocking irreverence. But the time it took to listen to the album all the way through was also about as long as they lived in the spotlight. As if tuckered out from being so thoroughly turned on, the media collectively turned away from the Coral's wiles like a vengeful lunkhead jock who just as quickly forgets the co-ed still languishing in the backseat of his dad's Ford.
But the latest offering from the Coral, in form as well as content, is an album that demands longer staying power. This time, the Coral opt not for cheap thrills or madcap genre play, but instead go at it slow, steady, and respectfully. The album shows off their love of tuneful melodies, penetrating hooks, and easy going tempos. Sure, it's still weird -- laced with the now signature kooky instrumentation and spooky production effects, still sounding more like it's riding a clopping thoroughbred across the untamed frontier than sailing across the Atlantic. But listeners seeking the Coral spasm, beware: it's simply not here. Even when they get wild, it's subdued.
The two-disc set opens with the slow tromp of "In the Forest" -- somewhere between a funeral dirge and a hoe-down. The churchly organs open the song with a heavy-handed gravity, James Skelly's vocals sailing ethereally overtop. As the Coral are wont to do, the tempo accelerates as drums stomp and bass slowpokes in -- but unlike before, they rein it in again, shaving off the excess instrumentation to keep it to barren voice and hefty organ for most of the song's length. "Don't Think You're the First", the follow up, is faster but not necessarily lighter; there are flutes, ticking percussion, Western-inspired guitar flails and harmonica, but the minor key and sober vocal tone give the song more lament than lilt. And as if we needed further proof that the Coral are keeping things in check on this go round, the third track "Liezah" is nothing but a sweet, understated, almost folkish little tune -- calling to mind campfires and prairies more than rackets and revelry.
For those who miss the electricity from the Coral's previous material (indeed, most of the songs on the first disc are acoustic-electric, at least in sound), the second disc, Nightfreak and the Songs of Becker (a separate limited edition CD in the UK), plugs in. It still keeps things staid and steady, though, but with a slight kick. Most compelling on this overall more groove-oriented collection are "Venom Cable" -- the Coral's most valiant effort at a dance track to date, which sounds like a spooky disco; "I Forgot My Name", chants and echoes and psycho-cosmic instrumentation that concocts a brew more sinister than that stirred up by the witches from Macbeth; and "Grey Harpoon", a song I can't describe except to say that it sounds like a mash-up of "Somebody's Watching Me", "Axel F", and something by Black Grape. But even this wackiness is notably cleaner and more controlled than their old material.
Some might describe what the Coral put out here as more mature; others may simply describe it as more boring. Depending on what you're seeking, both adjectives have their place. But I'll bet there are few straight guys out there who are wishing their adult sex lives were more like they were back during adolescence. Because although it may be nice to being able to get really excited at the drop of a hat, there's also something to being able to keep it up.