It takes balls to begin an album as pompously as The Coral begin their eponymous debut. The opening bars of country wrangle swagger into a jangly space-age march that, as soon as you get a grip on it, rushes out of reach. Mayhem ensues — but briefly. Next: what sounds like a ship-deck chorus, like the Pirates of Penzance fresh off a couple of pints, men singing and sloshing and swashbuckling, until they’re gradually overtaken by the slop of before. Then suddenly, it ends. Just like that. I want to rip my eyelashes out.
I can’t wait to hear what happens next.
This is it folks: The Coral, that band that ruled in England in the last half of 2002, the one set for cult celebrity Stateside in 2003. And why not? It’s not that you just can’t put a finger on their sound; it’s more like you can’t possibly have enough fingers to do it. Heralding from Holyake, Liverpool, England, James Skelly (guitar/vocals), Ian Skelly (drums), Nick Power (organ), Bill Ryder-Jones (guitar/trumpet), Lee Southall (guitar/vocals) and Paul Duffy (bass/sax), make war on musical categorizations with every whimsical trip. They’re tricksters, for certain, but their stunts manage to enliven without ever tiring.
This album might be one of the most original albums you’ll ever hear, but not because you haven’t heard its components before. You just maybe haven’t heard them in such close proximity, or with such theater. At their more effable moments, their playful attitude is reminiscent of the Happy Mondays or Captain Beefheart, and their cheeky liveliness sounds somewhat like Supergrass (with James Skelly doing a better Gaz Coombes than the man himself). Then, all of a sudden, it will break into a traditional Russian dance number (“I Remember When”). Or the dusty theme for a Western, done in four part harmony, hymnal-style. (“Shadows Fall”). Or vaudevillian rockabilly (“Dreaming of You”).
What strikes a listener next, after all this aural miscellany, is The Coral’s ability to transition between these genres expertly, as easily as a stereo graphic equalizer setting shifts from “Latin” to “pop” to “rock” and back again. It’s not pomposity that does this, but something more akin to poetry. Back to “Dreaming of You”: James Skelly is a master of vim and vigor, spitting out the lyrics with a bulleted passion. The puff of horns and plunk of bass gives the melody both a gut and a pulse, as sprightly guitar and bass pogo on the upbeats. I have yet to mention the xylophone solo and background do-wops. Its overall effect is nothing short of bizarre. And catchy. And genius.
Oh yes, these boys are clever bastards, and sneaky ones at that. “Goodbye” most clearly recalls the maudlin boppy stylings of Britpop, but even the Coral can’t do that without pulling the rug out from underneath you, just when you think you’ve caught on. The production on the vocals has them sounding like they’re in another room — or perhaps, another era — from the instruments that background them. Midway through, the song begins to break down dramatically — imagine it’s 1976 and you’re preparing for the big guitar solo at a Boston concert — except you get the driving punk guitar of The Ex instead . . . until, hey, there’s that guitar solo you were waiting for. How are they going to get themselves out of this one? With the most logical technique available to them, of course — counting down from 10. Is that James Skelly counting, though, or the Wizard from the Wizard of Oz?
I’ve wasted a lot of words on this album when, in short, it leaves me speechless. Blessed be that for every 15 Avirils that comes down the pike, there’s at least one act like The Coral. One act that knows that it takes originality — and balls — to make music that’s worth the time.