Record #417: Cool Hand Luke – Cora (2017)

About a week before I started 10th grade, I was at a Taking Back Sunday show (at a small coffeeshop in my hometown—this was before they got huge), and I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said, “Cool Hand Luke.” Always eager to find new music, I hopped on (they’re still open, B.T. Dubs) and did a quick search.

And friends, I’m not sure if any other internet search has ever had such an effect on my life.

I found a copy of their EP, So Far… and quickly ordered it. It was exactly what I’d been searching for: a wonderful blend of post-rocking indie and progressive hardcore. After about three spins, I ordered their debut, I Fought Against Myself. 

I Fought Against Myself quickly became my musical center. With complex chords, huge drums, a myriad of meter changes, and vocals that would go from singing a major key melody to a metal scream within measures, IFAM was largely the blueprint for my first band, dogseesnam. I still use some of those chord shapes to these day.

The follow ups, Wake Up, O Sleeper and The Fires of Life found the group taking a more melodic approach, but there were still key-defying melodies and cerebral rhythms. Fires  in particular was the soundtrack to a rather tumultuous 12th grade year (along with mewithoutYou’s [A–>B Life]).

But as I went on to discover bands like Radiohead, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Sigur Rós, I lost tabs on Cool Hand Luke. So when they released the (sadly, digital only) Passion Liturgy album Of Man in 2011, I completely missed it (until last year).

But my reconnection to Cool Hand Luke (now a solo project) was timely. Because earlier this year, singer/pianist/drummer Mark Nicks wrote Cora, a collection of songs that accidentally became the newest Cool Hand Luke record. And then, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to press it to vinyl.

Cora wasn’t supposed to be a Cool Hand Luke record so, unsurprisingly, there are a lot of elements that are totally foreign to the rest of their catalogue. For instance, there are mad synths on this bad boy. And I don’t remember any Cool Hand Luke tracks being anywhere near as dancy as these tracks (courtesy of session bassist Brandon Shattuck, who also plays guitar). Synth laden opener “Hidden In a Waveform” kicks off the album with a strong groove that lets you know that this release is something different. The dance anthem “Taking Changes” doubles down. The rapidfire keyboard arpeggios of “Holy Vanguard” and the drum machine and synth drone of I Will/I Won’t continue the trend.

But that’s not to say it doesn’t make sense as part of the band’s catalog. There’s plenty to connect it to the rest of Nicks’ work under that moniker. The post-rock guitars, the incredible drum work, and, of course, Mark’s vocals and lyrics. Several of the tracks here wouldn’t be out of place on The Fires of Life. Particularly, lower tempo tracks like the fiery”Sing for You,” the ballad”The Old Man Lies,” and the piano led “Excavation,” which utilizes a key-jumping chord progression to great effect.

I must confess: I initially backed the purchase for purely sentimental reasons. It’s long been a dream of mine to have a Cool Hand Luke record in my vinyl collection. I’d barely care if it was good if I could somehow have a piece of the band that has offered me so much inspiration (musically and spiritually). But to my absolute delight, this album is a masterpiece.

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