It’s always nice to open up an album from an unknown band and to be, well, blown away by the music therein. The Coals is perhaps at best a fairly nondescript name for a band with no real indication of what they’ll sound like (apparently they are named after a bar in L.A., weird name for a bar I think) and the cover art, a washed out picture of a naked woman sitting on a hillside close by a dog, seems to be, well, random and given the title of this mini album, mildly disturbing. Several days and several plays later we still think The Coals isn’t the greatest brand name in the world (although its growing on us) but the cover strikes us as a sly joke given the sense of humour apparent on the band’s website and their determination to bring a sense of laidback joy to their audience. The album title is from a Leonard Cohen poem, not one of his happiest called How We Approached The Book of Changes where he asks to be released from his human form in this “miserable and bewildering wretchedness” and be instead, “a happy animal,” presumably released from the cares, miseries and woes of the world, happy to just wag a tail and sit innocently beside a siren.
Enough already of the pseud’s corner analysis. After all there are only eight songs here clocking in at under a half hour but we can safely say that listening to A Happy Animal is a half hour you’ll not regret losing and indeed that many more will disappear under the mellifluous influence of The Coals. They’re from California and are led by singer and songwriter Jason Mandell whose laid back vocal delivery recalls the young Kris Kristofferson and Dylan’s brief baritone circa Self Portrait The band (Mandell, guitar, vocals, Darice Bailey, keyboards, Peter Hastings, bass, Greg Eklund, drums, Andy Tabb, guitar and Jack Arky, accordion) slip easily between styles with country folk, gospel blues and Mexicali all featured.
The album opens with a brief snippet of a street corner preacher warning that “destruction will come to Los Angeles, God will destroy Los Angeles for its sin” (echoes of the Burritos here folks) before Redeem Me, a free flowing country flavoured jaunt with Mandell almost purring the lyrics opens the album proper. Dirt Road is a rambunctious barrelhouse country song that sounds as if it was unearthed from The Basement Tapes and it’s over all too soon, a pity as the band’s playing is exuberant with fine piano and percussion driving it along. Let Me Down Easy lowers the temperature as Mandell sings a heartfelt love song over some striking Dobro playing. Maria takes us into Tijuana territory with Mexicali trumpet added to the mix, it’s a fine addition to the canon of Tex-Mex influenced California songs and one that we return to time and time again. Hand To Hold is a minor gem as Mandell visits the glory days of the LA troubadours and sings resignedly of the burden of relationships as rippling acoustic guitar and fine harmonies on the chorus recall the simplicity of James Taylor and the craft of John Prine. It’s an excellent song and encapsulates all that has to be said in less than two minutes, no fat here. Steal My Heart is a very laidback honky tonk number with barroom piano and a fine Dobro solo all delivered with a loping devil may care attitude. Another excellent song. Baseline Blues excavates the early Kristofferson along with a whiff of Cohen and even Lee Hazlewood as Mandell is accompanied on vocals by Sally Dworsky and the listener should be astonished at the quality of Mandell’s writing and the band’s delivery as this is as good a song as we’ve heard all year. Mandell sings “Tried to say I need I you without saying that I do, Tried to make you see what kind of hell you put me through, baby I just can’t help but wanting you” over a majestic piano led Muscle Shoals type melodrama that excites through and through. After this the ragtime Lord, Lord, Lord is almost an anticlimax but again the boogie piano and general bonhomie gives it a rousing feel. If we rated albums this would be a 10/10. The only quibble is its brevity as we could listen to this all night.