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The Coral
Magic & Medicine/Nightfreak & The Sons of Becker
Columbia Records

Once a Scouse, always a Scouse, that's what I say. The Coral try to negate their Liverpool/ Beatles heritage, only to prove that the opposite is merely a mirrored reflection. As they try to be anything but their hometown saints, these young British snots assimilate every British Invasion/non-Beatles element into an almost Beatles-like thing-thang. The Kinks, the Animals, Cream, etc., are all thrown together into a mind already over-cluttered with psychedelic effects, folk-rock, New Orleans jazz and the remnants of sea shanties left over from old glory days. But this is not schizophrenia; there is a unity of vision that only the Beatles could have influenced. Beatles, Beatles, Beatles.

The Coral, their 2002 beast of a debut, was a Frankenstein's monster of the bands' influences, stitched together by bitter, crazed men. Magic and Medicine, however, seems like the unused portions from all those corpses. Creepy atmospherics, pop songs with flutes, folky numbers, blues...all developed out of self-consciously complete songs, expertly produced, soulfully sung, at times deceptively easy to swallow. In particular, "In the Forest," "Don't Think You're the First," "Bill McCai" and "Pass It On" are perfect pop for strange times. The last two songs on the album reflect more overt art, especially "Confessions of A.D.D.D.," which blends some nice Atlantic soul with a cracked perspective. What's missing is the mystery. The Coral was so balls-out strange that this grasping at obvious song forms is disturbing and a little bit sad.

Released around the same time in the U.K., and included here as a bonus disc, Nightfreak & The Sons of Becker displays a similar maturity while allowing more of their individuality to show. Influences fly in from every direction: there are bits here that smack of dance-pop, garage music, Slick Rick and pre-rock vocal groups. But, the songwriting suffers on the second half, getting downright annoying on "Migraine," and there is a tossed-off quality to the album as a whole. If The Coral had spent more time writing and recording Nightfreak, it could be better than M&M. As it stands, both of these albums are a bit of a disappointment.

Tracks to burn (Magic & Mystery): "Don't Think You're the First"; (Nightfreak & the Sons of Becker): "Sorrow Or the Song"
Grades: (Magic & Medicine):
B-; (Nightfreak & The Sons of Becker): C--Jesse Steichen

No Depression: What It Sounds Like (Vol. 1)

"They ain't no good if you don't bust out crying," a female country music fan once told me while browsing at an indie record store I once ran. The editors of magazine No Depression have handpicked such lump-in-the-throat tunes -- along with a few honky-tonk boogie numbers -- for their first compilation. Johnny Cash kicks it off with Willie Nelson's "The Time of the Preacher," backed by members of Soundgarden, Nirvana and Alice In Chains for a country-rock scorcher. Whiskeytown's "Faithless Street" shows the early writing prowess of the genre's current love him/hate him mascot, Ryan Adams. Allison Moorer wonders "Is Heaven Good Enough For You," Alejandro Escovedo counts down not one, not two, but "Five Hearts Breaking," and the late Doug Sahm is remembered with his "Cowboy Peyton Place." The Hole Dozen (Victoria Williams, Mark Olson and friends) sing a jug band howler called "How I Love Old Songs," and The Carter Family brings their classic country-gospel into somber view with "No Depression In Heaven." You get the picture, there's not a weak one in the bunch.

Track to burn: "The Time of the Preacher"
Grade: A--Samir Shukla

The Black Heart Procession
The Tropics of Love (DVD)
Touch & Go

It's said that every rock star wants to act, and vice versa. It's rarer to find rockers who feel they have the wherewithal to shoot a film any more ambitious than a home movie or road video diary.

But the lead singer for The Black Heart Procession hardly qualifies as your average rocker. Pall Jenkins regularly performs wearing a horse's head, and BHP live shows border on performance art anyway; their pitch-black music suggesting a well-crafted but disturbingly eerie soundtrack. That Jenkins and co-writer/director Matthew Hoyt put the band's 2002 concept record, Amore del Tropico, to film does not qualify as a surprise.

But does it qualify as a success? The 50-minute did-he-or-didn't-he mystery invokes countless film noir scenarios, though in the end the result is more Ed Wood than Fritz Lang. Still, there's a touching and refreshing amateurism in all of the film's elements -- direction, acting, camera work, and plot -- that works quite well as an antidote to Hollywood's latest John Grisham adaptation, for instance.

As amateur as the film is, the music is decidedly not, and the best reason for watching The Tropics of Love is the aural reminder that Amore del Tropico is the shit.

Grade: C--John Schacht

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