Monday, 28 March 2011

The Coctails (Carrot Top)

This is the final CD by the Coctails, the cover photo emulating their previous album Peel, only with a feeling of rot and decay here. This is an album that I hold close to my heart - an idiosyncratic, personal favourite that becomes more obscure with each passing year, but that I still feel a strong rapport with. Because I don't own anything else by this band, this is taken a bit out of context. The Coctails were a Chicago band in the early 90s who merged indie rock with eclectic instrumentation and jazz/lounge influence; their earlier LPs, such as Long Sound, were bouncy and owed a debt to Dave Brubeck and stuff like that. Peel took things into a somewhat more guitar-based territory, and then this masterpiece ends up almost totally eschewing the quirks of their early work (with the closest reference being 'Cadali', a jaunty tune that is lovely, but out of place here). The Coctails is a dour, depressed record that's about half-instrumental, half-vocal. There are bright spots - 'Circles' is a major-key instrumental with vibraphones and a really perfect, brief use of casio beats - but even this has a somber tone. The vocal tracks are set by the opening cut, 'When I Come Around' (released around the same time as the Green Day hit of the same name); your typical white-guy indierock vocalist, emoting despite not actually having a great singing voice. This is heard more clearly on 'So Low', where the singer (either Archer Prewitt, John Upturch or Barry Phipps; not really sure) bellows a dramatic dirge. I can't speak highly enough of how wonderful this record is, but I have been listening to it for almost 15 years. The credits reveal the source recordings to come from various points throughout the 90s - 'When I Come Around' and 'Never Knew' were actually recorded with Stuart Moxham back in 1993 (this album was released in '96). So rather than being a cohesive statement of melancholy, this was a collection of what didn't fit on the other records; whatever the motive, it ends up being the most rewarding work of their career (and I think it outclasses anything Prewitt did subsequently in the Sea and Cake or solo). This is guitar-based indie rock, with carefully chosen notes that ring out delicately like a Bedhead record. And like Bedhead's last album, there's one fuzzy stomper near the end of the record that would be out of place except it fits so perfectly - the grunge anthem 'Cast Stones', a snarled rant that feels more frustrated than angry. The Coctails is filled with moments of utter beauty, such as the delicate 'Starling' and the epic 'City Sun'; it closes with a Terry Riley moment, 'Last Organ'. It's a thick, elliptical organ drone, clearly intended as an elegy for the band who I think had broken up by the time this was released. At the time, I'm sure this album complemented the livelier tunes on their other records - completing the picture, and fleshing out the band into a more fully expressive unit. But since it's been at least a decade or more since I've heard even Peel, I'm left remembering the Coctails by this, their Sister Lovers.

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