The Coral

Magic & Medicine (Sony/Deltasonic)

The Coral is a talented sextet of kids from Merseyside, England, whose improving songcraft and sense of self-expression threaten to eventually eclipse the kitsch and appreciation for pop history that earned them a cult following last year. The group's 2002 self-titled debut was alternately ridiculous and fascinating. It blended an encyclopedic mix of psychedelia, garage rock, dub reggae, Eastern European folk, overly dramatic European soft-porn pop -- all those '60s dudes-in-scarves and blondes-in-miniskirts references -- while seamlessly capturing the melodic nuances, unsettling echoes and tuneful simplicity that made that era so great. The Coral's in-your-face gimmick was fantastic, but that's primarily what the debut offered -- a smart-boy gimmick from a bunch of 18-to-21-year-olds that could have run its course quickly.

With its follow-up effort, Magic & Medicine, the band, led by promising songwriter and singer James Skelly, shows signs of mellowing and maturing into something that can be progressive and nostalgic all at once. This time around, the group keeps the over-the-top gestures to the beginning (the absurd church-organ, lost-on-acid romp "In the Forest") and to the end ("Confessions of A.D.D.D.," which ends with a winding, Buffalo Springfield-derived solo). In between, while the production tricks with reverb and retro sound remain, the songs themselves mostly are efficient, confident, subtle and gentle. They owe more to the pop legacy of the Byrds and early Neil Diamond than anything; of all the quirky developments of that era, those are the most lasting, translating to Fleetwood Mac, R.E.M., Pavement and beyond. Consequently, "Don't Think You're the First," "Bill McCai" and "Pass It On" may prove to be some of the year's most whimsical and joyous recordings.

That's the thing with smart-boy gimmicks -- occasionally, the boys learn to extend beyond their muse and develop something truly time-honored and universal. The Coral may very well become huge in short order.

 
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