Review: The Distillers -- Coral Fang
The Distillers describe themselves as a punk rock band. From the band's website:
“The Distillers are purely, a punk band. It's that simple. The new album Coral Fang is the culmination of the perfect chemistry between four top notch musicians who hate each other.”
Let me state up front that I don't know from Punk Rock. I don't have stacks of Black Religion Pistols albums lying around my filthy hovel to establish my Punk Rawk Credibility. It was only a month or so ago that I realized that extending the thumb on the “rock on” sign was, in fact, doing it wrong and not simply a stylistic choice in homage to Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. So, when I say that “The Distillers” don't really strike me as a punk rock band, understand that I really have no idea what in the hell I'm talking about. It's just that ultimately their songs are too long and their production values too high for what I've established in my mind under the category “punk”. They sound a bit like pop-punk, but their lead singer is a woman with a deep, throaty, worldly voice rather than some pimply teenager and most of their songs are about dismemberment and bloody murder rather than being too much of a nonconformist to attend prom or engaging in wacky anti-authoritarian antics, so I'm not really comfortable with that label either.
But the music makes me want to jump around and break shit, or perhaps violently overthrow some indeterminate but oppressive entity, which I suppose is ultimately the “spirit” of punk; much the same way dry humor is the “spirit” of irony, now that the word itself has lost all concrete meaning. On that level, Coral Fang is a damn fine punk album.
The main reason the album (and the band, for that matter) works so well is lead singer Brody Dalle, an Aussie who can sing, growl, and scream with equal conviction. She conveys a kind of sexy menace in her vocals that makes you wish she would record a lesbian bondage album with Nina Persson (or at least it does if you're me). The rest of the band keeps up respectably well: the riffs are simple and fast, but full-sounding and usually vary enough to keep things interesting.
Lyrically, the band seems trapped in the early-to-mid nineties, for better or worse. Back in the day, Cobain would sing utter nonsense mixed with death-laden imagery and sacrilegious non-sequiters that sounded like it might contain some sort of profound nihilistic truth when dissected, but was really just about how he felt bad because some chick dumped him. Brody uses the same trick and, while I admit that it's all rather silly, I prefer it infinitely to contemporary rock songs which just come out and flatly state that the lead singer feels bad because some chick dumped him. Plus, Brody's only intermittently coherent anyway and hearing thirty seconds of deranged growling followed by “it comes to rape what you hide” is pretty effective on a visceral level.
On the bad side, there are a couple pretty awful songs and, for an eleven track disc, it seems to get pretty tedious towards the end. The Distillers follow a basic songwriting formula for most of their work: Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Instrumental Bridge-Chorus. This seems to be Songwriting 101 as far as pop/rock goes, giving songs just enough flesh to be worth considering and getting quickly to the good bits. But a bit more variety would be welcome, and individually all but the best and worst songs on the album seem to overstay their welcome by about thirty seconds. Ultimately this is a better disc for driving to or jumping around and breaking shit to or otherwise playing in the background while you focus on tasks other than just sitting and listening to, as analysis tends to expose its weaknesses.
The opening track, “Drain the Blood”, is a fine little angry fist-pounder. It serves as a solid introduction for the coming experience: violent but meaningless imagery, strong, visceral guitar riffs, and entirely unnecessary instrumental bridges. The next track, “Dismantle Me”, is less violent and doesn't wrench the gut quite as satisfactorily, but its a bit more playful musically and has the good sense to only take two and a half minutes, which is about as long as it needs to get its point across.
Next up are couple songs about hanging of variable quality. “Die On a Rope” is a suicidal number that works well enough, but ultimately doesn't do anything the previous two tracks didn't do better. “Gallows is God”, on the other hand, is an attempt at musical diversity that fails miserably. The riff is slowed to a grinding crawl that only serves to expose its simplicity. Brody growls gamely in attempt to keep things interesting, but ultimately her chorus of “What a surprise!” falls flat long before the song is even half over. It actually picks up a bit at the four minute mark as the grinding lets up for a bit in favor of more melody, but by then you've probably fast forwarded to the next song, and no one can blame you, especially considering what's coming up.
“Coral Fang” is, as you might have ascertained, the album's title track, and it signals the start of the absolute best three song punch I've heard in a long while. “Fang” captures the best bits of the first two pretty good songs of the album and neither of their weaknesses. Alternating between screeching grind and melody at regular intervals it mixes irreverence and violence in equal measures and takes full advantage of Brody's versatility as a vocalist. At two minutes and six seconds, it's the only track on the album I would have liked to be longer.
Following that brief number we hit the entirely different but just as good “The Hunger”. It took me a few listens to really understand why I liked this slowish five-minute number, until I realized that it sounds exactly like it was written in 1994 and, even better, is superior to the vast majority of songs that actually were written in 1994. In fact, I could place this song perfectly on the first disc of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness , somewhere between “Zero” and “Muzzle”, except instead of Billy Corgan's bassless mutant caterwauling, you get Brody Dalle. Doing tension-release better than anyone has since Kurt splattered his heroin-addled brains all over Courtney's pretty new dress, “The Hunger” goes the extra mile by sustaining itself over five minutes without getting unnecessarily repetitive. As an added bonus, just to make sure bands like Nickleback are thoroughly shamed, “The Hunger” does not feature a vocalist desperately imitating Eddy Vedder and does not appear on an album full of similar-sounding but inferior songs.
We hit the end of this musical triumvate with “Hall of Mirrors”, which is a rage-fueled ego trip to a gore-strewn hellscape. Lyrically it's the best of the album, if only for lines as crazily self-important as “I come down like a bloody rain cuts up flesh sky” or “I fucked you in the eye of my sun”. Musically, the band's at their visceral best, and Brody's vocals are fucking magnetic..
While there's probably no successful way to follow up “Hall of Mirrors”, “Beat Your Heart Out” introduces the declining quality of the end of the album as amiably as possible. With its simple, repetitive structure and lovelorn chorus of “baby, you make my heart beat faster”, it's distinctively lighter than the rest of the album, and really as close as the band comes to what I think of when I hear the word “pop-punk”. Like most pop-punk, it's instantly catchy and likable but you're pretty much sick of the song before it's over.
“Love is Paranoid” and “For Tonight You're Only Here to Know” close out the listenable portion of the disc. “Love” is a pretty decent rock song that keeps things moving sufficiently, and is hurt only because it comes at the end of a CD full of very similar songs. Basically forgettable. “For Tonight” is interesting as the only track where Brody sings (as opposed to growling or screaming) the entire time, giving things a more straightforward rock sound than previous songs. It's not bad, but lacks the edge of the earlier tracks on the album, however, and is ultimately pretty forgettable.
The album closes with “Death Sex” which is really just a twelve minute drum solo over guitar distortion. I'm not sure if it's intended to be an actual song, or if it's just the shit that got recorded on the last day in studio when everyone was drunk or high and made it onto the disc as an in-joke. Either way, it's thoroughly unpalatable.
Absent of any real musical expertise, all I can really say in closing is that three excellent songs and three or four more quite good songs is a better value than I'm used to getting out of CDs. Hearing “Drain the Blood”, “Hall of Mirrors”, and “The Hunger” off the band's website set me up for a CD that would get all up in my area and rock my spleen out my anus and, if the whole of the disc doesn't live up to the standards of its best songs, I'm still quite pleased with my purchase. Its enough to keep me interested in past and future works by Brody and the gang, and if the band used to or will one day live up to their full potential, I'm in for some high quality punk rock and mayhem, indeed.
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