Sunday, April 3, 2011

The La's: The La's (Remastered)

I grew up on Oldies Radio. This is a format that has largely been displaced by "Classic Rock," which uses as much from the 70's and 80's as from the 60's -- and unlike "Oldies," very little from the 50's, but for the first decade or so of my life, the only songs I really knew were the ones from my parents' youth. I knew the Beatles' songs before I even knew I knew the Beatles' songs. This is so true to the point that when I heard the song "Eleanor Rigby" when I was 16, I couldn't remember any specific incidence of hearing it ever before, and yet I felt it was the most familiar thing. These songs have a way of feeling familiar, perhaps because they form the basis of the entire notion of radio pop.

So we have the curious case of retro pop, and in particular The La's. One might ask "If we already have the Beatles, what's the use of a band 30 years later that sounds like the Beatles?" That's a pretty dumb question, but a fair one. After all, the Beatles stopped sounding "like this" in about 1966, and all other bands similarly changed their sounds in the closing years of the 60's. The Rolling Stones of "The Last Time" became the ones of "Satisfaction" and then of "Tumbling Dice" and "Miss You." The Who of "Substitute" because the Who of Tommy and "Baba O'Riley." The Kinks, the Hollies... and the American equivalent bands like The Beach Boys all changed with time, and then rock kept mutating until it gave us Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Kiss, the Ramones, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Nirvana... by 1991 it's hard to blame a band for wanting to recapture that 1965 sound.

So there's the case of "There She Goes," a song that, like Beatles '65, you feel like you've already heard all your life the first time you've heard it. The lyrics are delightfully, memorably simple, yet convey a complex idea. "There she goes..." Lee Mavers sings plaintively. It's a simple observation, but one that connects the song to vintage songwriting. It could have been "Here she comes..." just as easily, but that's an entirely different thought. With that lyric choice, and all those that surround it, Mavers says a lot about the unattainable desire, the yearning, innocent or otherwise, that underlay the songwriting of olden days. With its jangly guitars and sweet background harmonies, the song sounds like it was ripped directly from the mid-60's.

And for most of my life, that's all there was to the song. A pleasant, retro-sounding tune that sometimes showed up in movies (such as So I Married an Ax Murderer) and got a decent cover treatment by Sixpence None The Richer. It was likely to get stuck in your head after hearing it, yet you could go years without going back to it.

Then a couple months ago I bought an issue of Q Magazine whose cover story was the Top 250 Albums of the Q Years (the oldest album on there was Paul Simon's Graceland, for reference's sake,) looking to get material for this blog outside the past couple years. Somewhere in the bottom half of he list was this album. I've heard some praise about it here and there, but it never really piqued my interest, because I figured if I'd heard that song, I'd heard the main event. But the story, as laid out in the magazine, was of a troubled visionary Lee Mavers, who took years to record this seemingly-simple album, rejecting takes he viewed as "imperfect," trying desperately to match the tunes he had in his head... so specific, yet the genesis of a song like "There She Goes" could be found in a late-night jam session where Mavers got strung out on drugs and played his guitar into a tape recorder, and, unbeknownst to him, wrote his biggest hit completely unconsciously.

And that, I thought, was a great way of looking at this album. The pop contained on it seems to go beyond merely paying tribute to vintage pop, but as a recreation from the foundation up: a record out of time. I think it's possible these songs were ingrained in Mavers' head the way the Beatles' have become for the rest of us, and his obsession over their exactness was because he envisioned this album as a collection of covers that didn't have originals. He wanted to be faithful to recordings that existed nowhere but his imagination. Which, in a twisted way, is brilliant.

The album is made up of good-to-great sunny pop strummers like "Son of a Gun," the bitter "I.O.U.," the criss-crossing "Way Out." One great track is the protest-against-complacency "Doledrum," which seems to be a descendant of Kinks songs like "Well-Respected Man." Many of the lyrics point to an uncertain, unspeakable anxiety under Mavers' skin, like "Feelin'," or the frustrated, roaring, over-enunciated "Failure," and of course "There She Goes," with its vaguely-sketched, economically-detailed desire.

Then there are a couple of truly excellent songs that are what convinced me this album was for me. One was "I Can't Sleep," a jubilant explosion of Pete Townshend "I Can't Explain" guitars, overlaid on each other and brimming with fire and life. The other is "Timeless Melody," which I've never heard a song like. Fitting for its polymorphous form, which seems to create its own place outside time, it seems to be about having a song stuck in your head, with great lyrics like "Even the words they fail me / Oh look what it's doing to me / I never say what I want to say..." which do a better job of encapsulating the feeling of being struck for words than, even, say, Nirvana's "On a Plain" (great song, that.) Cobain is an unlikely comparison to Mavers, if one looks at their output, but neither was stranger to digging deep into one's influences and extracting something utterly original.

A couple oddities round out the album, slinky downtempo numbers like the jaunty "Liberty Ship" and the gypsy-island-tinged "Freedom Song," as well as the musically-impressive prog of "Looking Glass," which pulls the album away from the 60's and into the excesses of the 70's, maybe sort of where the British Invasion becomes concept albums and 8-minute Led Zeppelin electric-folk songs. That one builds so subtly and powerfully that you barely notice what's going on. They're all good songs, but they aren't why people are getting into the album. The La's are at their best in jangly 3-minute speedy guitar bashes.

Sometimes in cases like these I wonder why the band never got it together to have a second hit or a second album. The more I learned about the La's, the more I understood this was impossible. The very fuel for Mavers' creativity was also kind of destructive. You could blame drugs -- "There She Goes" is often, and probably not wrongly, interpreted as being partly or wholly about heroin (I think partly at most -- like the similarity between addiction and romantic desire.) Whatever it was that drove Mavers to write such a great set of songs also prevented him from functioning in all the other aspects of a successful musician. He had the band disown the finished product of this album, and they broke up a while later. After their 2005 reunion for the Glastonbury Festival, the group rediscovered its love of playing together and the idea of recording a new album was floated. Mavers was apparently very into the idea, but noted they had to finish recording the first one first.

Buy this album from iTunes now!

1 comment:

  1. I don't know what it is about classic rock I love so much. I definitely didn't grow up listening to it. While there were some early exposures--the obligatory Beatles and Dylan tracks--I never really started listening to it until I was fifteen or so. I dunno. Maybe it's just me appreciating the beauty of something that isn't here anymore.

    Great article, Scotto.