10 Oct The Distillers’ Album ‘Coral Fang’ Turns 20: Why it’s Still a Favorite
Australian singer-guitarist Brody Dalle of The Distillers doesn’t sing in her higher register, like a lot of her female contemporaries did in the late ’90s and early ’00s. So when I heard her sing for the first time, in 2003, I was awestruck. Her voice — guttural, low, and emotive — was otherworldly, capable of snarling or soaring. As I listened to her growl, “I’m living on shattered faith,” during the first verse of ‘Drain the Blood,” the opening track on The Distillers’ third album Coral Fang, I felt like I’d stumbled onto something rare and brilliant.
I can’t remember, exactly, how Coral Fang, which turns 20 this week, landed in my hands in October 2003. But once I heard the full album for the first time (via CD), I became a forever fan: Dalle wrote and recorded the songs with her band during a period of deep transition and upheaval in her personal life. I was also navigating my 20s, and reeling from intense and ill-fated love, so I identified with her experiences and the music they inspired.
While The Distillers’ first two records are loaded with songs that have a more traditional hardcore/punk sound, what makes Coral Fang such a masterpiece is that every track is a precious gemstone in and of itself. You’ll hear hard-hitting punk, sludgy minor-chord progressions, surf-rock riffs, and raw, emotional outpourings, with the themes of sex, death, and rebirth interwoven throughout.
“Die on a Rope” juxtaposes bright, rollicking, singalong chants of “way-oh, way-oh” with serious subject matter, while “The Gallows is God” takes us down a dark rabbit hole, in a slow, misery-entrenched death march.
“For Tonight, You’re Only Here to Know,” which my band Trashing Violet covers, pairs a cool surf-rock riff with the idea of a love so intense it’s worth dying for. The best part of that song kicks in close to the end, when Dalle’s voice soars wildly. I can say from personal experience it’s impossible to sing this cover perfectly without 20 minutes of vocal warm-up exercises.
The stunning, transcendent fifth track “The Hunger” is truly the canary diamond of the album, coming in like a lamb, before unleashing a fury of screams in unexpected moments. It’s the closest thing to a torch song, seesawing between stages of grief as it builds to a climax.
The title track “Coral Fang,” is my personal favorite, but it’s also the most difficult to hear, with lyrics that allude to the simultaneous lure and pain of addiction: Ooh-ah-ooh, the coral fang/ Sinking in to make you well/ Ooh-ah-ooh, the coral fang/ Sinking in to make you ill. For reasons I won’t detail here that are deeply personal, it really hit home. Fortunately, there’s a bit of love and levity in “Beat Your Heart Out” to balance it out.
And, of course, all of this is packaged in an album with one of the most striking covers I’ve seen: an illustration of a naked woman against a crucifix whose rib is bleeding out. The image — by Tim Presley, an American artist who’d later form the band Darker My Love, featuring The Distillers’ drummer Andy Outbreak — incited reaction from religious groups for its potentially blasphemous nature, Kerrang! reported a few years ago.
Yet a handful of critics are down on Coral Fang. Some criticize the record for being too commercial and not punk enough. Others suggest Dalle’s genius is borrowed from her ex-husband Tim Armstrong and wield terms like “Rancid Tribute Band.”
Most of this commentary is shortsighted and, quite frankly, a little sexist. It’s true Dalle was once married to Armstrong, but he didn’t invent punk music or the electric guitar. Suggesting The Distillers are only famous because of Rancid is as ludicrous as insinuating Courtney Love and Hole would be nothing without Kurt Cobain.
The woman with the sneer in her voice is tough and talented in her own right.
I really do hope The Distillers do some kind of anniversary show or tour devoted to Coral Fang. I keep stalking their social pages in the hopes that it will happen. But I do understand Dalle is now a single divorced mother of three and has a lot going on personally (I get it).
So until then, I’ll crank this baby when I’m driving to band practice. I’ll stay grateful for all the inspiration and music Dalle and The Distillers have gifted us — especially with this album.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.