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CORAL (Buy CDs by this artist)
Shadows Fall EP (UK Deltasonic) 2001
The Oldest Path EP (UK Deltasonic) 2001
Skeleton Key EP (Deltasonic) 2002
The Coral (UK Deltasonic) 2002 (Deltasonic/Columbia) 2003
The Secret Kiss EP (UK Deltasonic) 2003
Magic and Medicine (UK Deltasonic) 2003
Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker (Deltasonic/Columbia) 2004
The Invisible Invasion (Sony International) 2005

The Coral, who hail from Hoylake, Merseyside, a village on England's west coast, can attribute their self-assurance and evolving mastery at least partially to their outsider status, youth and a high-spirited sense of experimentation. Extraordinary singing and consistently fine production by Ian Broudie don't hurt any, but, most of all, the Coral are great because they don't give a shit about anything but gorgeous, hard-driving songs that can be lustily sung on the way home from the pub.

The band was actually formed before any of the members — Ian Skelley (drums), Paul Duffy (sax/bass), Bill Ryder-Jones (guitar/trumpet), Lee Southall (vocals/guitar), Nick Power (singer/organist/songs), James Skelley (guitar/vocals/songs) — was old enough to drink. After several singles and EPs, the Coral hit it big in the UK with the sprightly melodic "Shadows Fall" from their debut album. The atmosphere on The Coral is jaunty, rambunctious, and youthful. James sings with a large-throated voice and a wide array of tonal color, pulling in the ghosts of Van Morrison and Wilson Picket under one frolicking tent. The playing is dense and unified, with a sure hold on form and content, allowing the band to veer from sea chanteys to Happy Mondays-type post-punk pop to introspective moody refractions of rock traditions. Each song is a world in and of itself. Most are simple in design, with conventional chord structure; a few humorously redesign traditional sailing and drinking tunes. Stretching itself, the band also comes up with the boisterous "Spanish Main," the crashing percussion of the Attractions-like "Dreaming of You," the Fairportish "Simon Diamond" and the jazzy "Bad Man."

Changes are various but mild on Magic and Medicine. Skelley wrote more of the songs; the expansive palette of the debut has been shorn of its tumult and restlessness. As ingenious as the 12-bar major-key themes are, highlights here are minor-key acoustic neo-pysychedelic homages, like the Love-inspired "Don't Think You're the First" and the Moby Grapeish "Talkin' Gypsy Market Blues." The atmospheric "Secret Kiss" and the eerie "Eskimo Lament," a song of faltering beauty that gleams with noble catastrophe, cook at a slow burn. Skelley's singing is more confident; he reduces lapses of taste, tics and clichés. (In America, Magic and Medicine was issued with the subsequent Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker as a bonus disc.)

Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker cinches the Coral's certainty to achieve a lasting legacy, a nutty, kinetic one maybe, but a legacy of simple, clever songs done with powerful notes of grace. The album glistens with supple melodies, chameleon-like stances towards the history of rock and orderly, accomplished instrumental prowess. Nick Powers' "Song of the Corn" has ridiculously great drumming; other highlights include a scorching rave-up ("Auntie's Operation") and "Keep Me Company," an irresistible and affirmative tribute to Mancunian post- punk. The sounds are both new and nostalgic. This inclusive spirit points up the fact that, apart from solid production and great singing, the band does not have a recognizable sound. If that means more loopy, naïve, generous, rapturous songs that recall Paul Weller's soulful soloings (or the Fall's jagged experimentation, or the blue-collar ethos of the Charlatans or the shimmer of the Sundays) and pop song structures that seem equally pulled from the Swell Maps and Squeeze and seaside dance halls, then sign me up.

Among the first things you notice on The Invisible Invasion, the Coral's finest, is that the boys have grown up: the melodies are swingier, the exuberant backup singing is atmospheric and pulsating, the guitar playing is surging with testosterone and the bassist and drummer have matriculated to the major leagues. Portishead's Adrian Utley and P.J. Harvey's studio director John Parrish did flawless co-production; their energetic and focused deftness is most apparent on the borderline songs that the band is becoming singular at investigating: jazzy riffs ("So Long Ago"), circular, pounding new wave ("The Operator") and spiky singalong seaside hearties ("Something Inside of Me"). Still, as great as the band, material and production are, it's the poignant Kinks-like lyrics, fine stabbing rhythm guitar work and Skelly's vocals that give the Coral heightened stature. His singing on the stirring "Arabian Sand" is flawless: declamatory, dramatic, articulated, with agitated demurrals of certitude. This is The Coral at its best: tight and stimulating, earthy and radiant.

[Michael Baker]