Retro Review: Magic and Medicine
The Coral enjoyed a brief success in the early 2000s with their single Dreaming of You which was something of hit and got used in a lot of adverts and TV shows. I had never heard their first album but if it’s anything like their second album they seem something of an anomaly. Magic and Medicine from 2002 is an outright 60s nostalgia album that feels 10 years too late seeing as that revival had its day in the 90s and we were then on the cusp of this god awful nu-wave synth 80s revival we’ve been living through for the last 15 years. But for that very reason it stands out as much today as it did then.
I bought Magic and Medicine on a whim. I only knew Dreaming of You but liked the look of the cover and had heard good things from musician friends. I was surprised then to find them to be a electric/acoustic psychedelic mid 60s band. A cross between The Kinks at their best and The Band (certainly the album cover is reminiscent of Songs from the Big Pink). The production on the album borders on pastiche at times, barely a single ‘modern’ sound is heard on the album. Certainly everything is clear and well mixed – not something that can be said of a lot of 60s records – but the sounds all feel “authentic” to the 60s for want of a better word. Guitars sound thin, bass is rumbley, Drums are over compressed and set back, organs and flutes are more camp than cool, all the instruments and effects are made to sound free from any digital intervention, then combine that with everything being covered in bright and springy reverb and you’ve got a lost 60s folk classic.
The songs are equally well observed approximations of the then Avant Garde invasion of the pop charts. Multiple tempo changes in several songs, spoken word, chatter and sound effects dropped in here and there, references to Dylan Thomas and leaping from retro-genre to retro-genre. From blues to folk ballad, from French Cha-Cha to psychedelic jams, all the bases are covered. Lyrically the songs are equally a tribute to the trippy poetry found in mid-60s music charts too, with songs that are tragic biographies a la Eleanor Rigby, literary allusions, stoned out explorations of the Universe, pining for manic pixie dream girls and lots of spreading love maaaaan.
I got this album when I was heavy into my Kinks phase, so it couldn’t have been better timed. I loved it. It got played on repeat a lot in my first flat and listening back to it now I can see what an influence it had on my song writing of the time. My friend and guitarist pal Chris and I went to London to go and see them at the Empire in fact. A gig indelibly imprinted on my mind thanks to a group of girls stood in front of us having to drag their wasted friend out after she threw up before the gig even started. Chris and I stayed where we were because it meant we had a clear view in front of us for the rest of the show. Anyway, the gig was great. They were touring this album so I knew the majority of the set and they played Dreaming of You early instead of saving it for the encore which I was pleased about. I remember the stage being decked out in trees and art to the album cover image. There was also way more than six people on stage which gave it a lively party feel alongside the wig-out jams they got into at times.
Listening back to it now for this review was a weird experience because I basically abandoned the band after all that. I stopped listening to the album thanks to lots of new stuff coming out, I never bought anything else of theirs and kind of forgot they existed. As such, listening to Magic and Medicine again was itself a trippy experience. The deliberately retro sound combined with the early pro-tools sheen creates a weird dissonance that creeps up on you as the tracks progress. As mentioned earlier it borders on pastiche at times and while it is admirable they went all in on that sound it is ultimately to the album’s detriment. There are some great songs here that should probably have been given a more contemporary treatment but instead sit alongside a whole album of material that seems to just exist to remind you of past songs from a fascinating era. In the same way as the Last Shadow Puppets just looked like a tribute band Magic and Medicine undermines the obvious talent and material in the band by demanding to be “authentically” old sounding, sadly, they succeed all too well. This is by no means a bad album, the music is really great and as an experiment it proves this sort of thing can be done convincingly, but ultimately it sounds like it’s from a lost era. Unfortunately, it’s not the era they were hoping for.
Stand out tracks are, well, all of them. In that brilliant way of bands from the 60s every song is a different genre with a different sound. An ability I have always tried to replicate in all my own albums. Bill McCai is the main single and is the most ‘poppy’ for the time and is lyrically the most interesting. Secret Kiss is the most convincingly retro but comes across as amusing rather than a groovy tune. Milkwood Blues and Confession of ADD are the most overtly trippy and psychedelic tunes that owe a lot to John Lennon. But Pass It On is the underrated gem here, should have been a hit. A simple tune that with a lovely chorus that should have captured the mood of the time and deserves a new audience. The Coral sit alongside bands like the Bees as acts who should have directed their love for this ‘vintage’ sound into newer avenues as opposed to letting it dominate their own sound. It robs them of their own identity and only results in an unfavourable comparison. Still a great album but you’ll want to listen to your own favourite 60s band immediately after and, like I did, probably forget all about it afterwards.