The Distillers

Coral Fang

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By far the most ambitious album yet to bear the Distillers name, Coral Fang is by turns darker, more polished, and more poppy than any of the band's previous work. The history of Brody Dalle -- now back to her maiden name after separating from Tim Armstrong -- precedes her and certainly informs this album, but it's not necessary to know to appreciate Coral Fang's themes of losing and finding love and dealing with a difficult past. Considering her troubled early years, her relationships with rock stars, and most importantly, the music she makes, it would be easy to call her the new Courtney Love. But the comparison is more than a little apt, and Coral Fang delivers the kind of vicarious, drama-queen punk rock thrills that haven't been around since Live Through This. However, even with their lineup switches, the Distillers have always sounded more like a band than any incarnation of Hole ever did; Dalle's voice might be even more desperate-sounding than Love at her most vitriolic; and, arguably, the Distillers' best songs sound more genuine. Direct comparisons aside, Coral Fang does feature some of the best jagged punk-pop in recent memory in "Drain the Blood," where Dalle sings, "I never met a pearl like you/Who could shimmer and rot the same time through" and the nasty breakup song "Hall of Mirrors." "The Hunger" is among the best songs the Distillers have ever written, mixing pretty, yearning verses with firebomb choruses. "The Gallow Is God" is another standout, a heavy, lurching, In Utero-esque catharsis that makes up for its lack of originality with its quality. "Oh my heart it sings suicide," the song begins, and along with titles like "Die on a Rope," it conveys the drama of the album's first half. This drama bleeds into melodrama more often than it should, lending an obviousness that detracts from the Distillers' power. The cover art for both versions of Coral Fang reflects the band's ham-fisted tendencies: the regular artwork features woodcut-like illustrations of bleeding, nude, and scantily-clad women, often pregnant, with razorblades for heads (if they have any at all). The so-called "clean" artwork -- which features the same music as the regular version -- announces its status as a "SAFE COVER" in capital letters and features a sunny vista of cute 'n' cuddly animals (save for a few subversive-looking raccoons, weasels, and skunks skulking in the foreground). Gil Norton's shiny production also makes songs such as "Dismantle Me" sound emptier than they actually are and turns the band into a machine that sounds a little too well-oiled, though it's impossible to totally defang Dalle's vocals and personality. Coral Fang's second half is less dramatic than its gut-wrenching first half, which is both a relief and a letdown. Still, "Beat Your Heart Out" is poppy enough to make Avril Lavigne watch her back, and "Tonight You're Only Here to Know" is another bruised ballad that suggests the Distillers might hit harder with their softer songs. "Death Sex," the aptly named, noisy 11-minute grind that closes the album, is at the very least out of place with the more neatly packaged music here and could be seen as a misguided attempt to inject the album with some more punk sensibility. Strangely, while The Distillers and Sing Sing Death House recalled the punk of the '70s and '80s, this album sounds like a throwback to mid-'90s alternative rock without actually sounding dated. Coral Fang has its fair share of flaws, but it's impassioned enough to have plenty of bite despite them.

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