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The Coctails - Popcorn Box

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Artist: The Coctails

Album: Popcorn Box

Label: Carrot Top

Review date: Feb. 22, 2005

The appeal of the Coctails, on one hand, is somewhat complicated: an anomalous, anachronistic conceptual art project; they seemed to aim to be like the Monkees, except that they were dealing with a 1950s aesthetic point-of-reference as an independent, self-created pop group from the early ’90s. The Coctails transformed themselves into iconic characters, insinuated a small-scale mythology about being a touring band, and had a slight self-referential awareness of Dada, the kitsch of two-tone graphic design, and a profound appreciation of the comic strip. The Coctails were on the verge of being a flawlessly executed demonstration of self-sovereigning bubblegum music. On the other hand, they never seemed to sacrifice their musical seriousness for the grab-bag of gimmickry that accompanied it. In other words, their songs seem to dictate the concept, rather than vice versa. In many ways, this is a shame.

Carrot Top's 3-cd Coctails rarity collection spans the particularly restless career of four Kansas City-originating musicians. It is a perfect homage: designed to resemble a classic popcorn box, clown-face caricatures of each band member gracing the cover of the accompanying discs and liner notes, elaborate interviews and annotations, and reprints of good portion of Archer Prewitt and Jas Dundore artwork that in many ways is the real meat in this set. The only complaint one may be able to find is in the inexplicable arbitrary track ordering that seems to betray the notion of a comprehensive overview.

The first disc begins in 1994, with a bare-bones EP that shows the Coctails in the best possible light. The two songs that follow the EP, recorded slightly later also show a similar preoccupation. The music is in a gray area, certainly, the tonality and instrumental feel of Blue Note-era Eric Dolphy, with a decidedly different agenda and a more cooled-off and comfortable energy. More like the way "Gazzeloni" sounds in that insurance commercial, rather than on record. It's music of failed advertising jingles, now in the throes of a love affair with the desk job. This isn't meant pejoratively, however, this EP seems like the most definitive comment on the Coctails' aesthetics, its a nostalgic jazz-aged fantasy with a tinge of modern prankster self-awareness.

However, never satisfied, the Coctails are next represented on this disc moving into their final period, represented here by three tracks from the last Coctails album, which essentially also illustrates the aesthetic shift in Chicago music starting to take place at the time, certainly indicating an easy transition for Prewitt towards the first Sea and Cake album.

The track "Even Time" jumps backwards a bit, to the Coctails' Peel EP and begins to show signs of the creative restlessness that seems to mar the Coctails most

functional conceptual aspects. It's a college-radio guitar jangle tune that intersects with any number of other forays into this territory included in the box, and while it's a catchy, bright song, it's radically removed from the post-Devo Coctails that satirize their own value in culture: it seems just a tad bit too genuine to jive with the irony and kitsch of their design.

It's hard to blame them. As the Popcorn Box reveals, the Coctails seem to have exhausted every goofball avenue as evidenced by tracks like "The Donut Shoppe" and "Ghost Town" that even the band seems to wince at in the liner notes. It's not that there's anything wrong with the songs, reminiscent of the quirkiness of artists like Stan Ridgeway and They Might Be Giants, but it's easy to see a band outgrowing these tendencies over a five-year period.

The Coctails seem to have three different modes: faux-jazz, the quirky pop song, and the more guitar-heavy melancholy of their later songs. Compare the cover of Peel and the self-titled Coctails album to the cover of Winter Wonderland and you'll pretty much get the idea immediately. The box set pretty comprehensively covers all of these fields of inquiry and shows a band that had outgrown itself and had no obligation to the public to remain consistent with their image. It just seems to be a disservice to the artwork, the novelty designs, and Coctails concept that the band didn't record under a different moniker in the last portion of their career. The group's boredom with the conceptual design of their music, perhaps for fear of being written off as a mere novelty, becomes an impetus to discard it, rather than producing a bizarre mutation like the Monkees' Head, for instance.

Though the overarching career of the Coctails might not have ever fully reached its goals, the music represented here is certainly worth hearing. It's ideally assembled and, despite the musical permissiveness of the artists involved, a decisive emphasis on writing strong pop hooks makes all three CDs a good time.

By Matt Wellins

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