Having grown out of the swashbuckling psychedelia they audaciously paraded on their eponymous 2002 debut, erstwhile NME darling the Coral has fallen off the radar somewhat. Their Morricone-tinged sea shanties of old were born of a dizzying range of influences, making for records that were ceaselessly exciting if only for their madcap arrangements and hectic sonic marriages. Eight years and three-and-a-half albums later (including the mini-album Nightfreak & the Sons of Becker), following 2007’s fairly colorless Roots & Echoes, the Scouse quintet (sans lead guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones) give us their most mature and measured release to date: Butterfly House is a kaleidoscopic bout of dreamy folk-pop, finished with a reassuring air of calm and confidence.
Things don’t get much dreamier than “Walking in the Winter,” built on a fingerpicked acoustic melody that recalls James Taylor’s brand of folk. Here, singer James Skelley gently intones a stream of lush imagery as he mourns for his estranged lover, telling her “It’s okay to close your eyes/Those silver sailing ships go sailing by” with wistful warmth. “Falling All Around You” is a similarly cozy bout of lovestruck balladry, and again it works wonderfully, illuminating the group’s ear for unadorned, more intimate numbers.
As rewarding as it is to see Skelley and company back on form with this forlorn folk, it’s equally refreshing to see them restore a bit of an edge to their sound with “She’s Coming Around,” “North Parade,” and the feverish title track. “Butterfly House” sets out its stall as a screwy ‘60s psychedelic trip, spiced by ominous dialogue that’s only barely audible amid the multifarious waves of sound, erupting in its final minute with a wailing guitar solo and a torrent of noise courtesy of eminent producer John Leckie.
This isn’t quite the fresh-faced Coral of old, throwing the kitchen sink at listeners and dabbling with eccentric song structures just for the sake of it, but there’s enough evidence that their sense of in-studio mischief is still strong. Penultimate track “Coney Island” is the album’s most out-there ditty, built on a spooky xylophone melody and chilling slide guitar work. It’s also the track that most strongly recalls the Coral’s sea-shanty sensibilities, though they’re given a more surreal flavor here.
This is without doubt the band’s most mature work to date, and perhaps they’re most polished too, thanks to some excellent production work, but Butterfly House still has no respect for convention and shows little interest in becoming a straightforward pop record. Eight years and now five-and-a-half albums into their career, it doesn’t look as though the Coral are ready to be put out to pasture just yet.