Review Summary: “It’s like, the closer you get to perfection the closer you get to imperfection, simple as”
The La’s is one of the most intriguing and beguiling yet wholly exciting and fun records ever to be released. It is also rather frustrating. It was the only album the Liverpudlian group, consisting of the core duo of Lee Mavers (vocals, guitar) and John Power (bass, backing vocals), would put out, and given the wealth of classicist pop gems buried on this lone affair, that fact is a sad one. Yet the music remains, timeless and as simply sparkling as it was over 20 years ago, and that fact is nothing but satisfying.
The La’s spent around 4 years making this LP, and burnt through at least 6 proclaimed producers in the process. The story goes that front man Lee Mavers is a tireless perfectionist, and could not be satisfied until the sounds caught in his (allegedly) drug fuelled mind were perfectly and properly captured on record. The Steve Lillywhite version was the one that ended up seeing the light of day, and the band were forced to accept it as the version to hit the shelves, the label having grown tired of waiting for Mavers to be happy with the product. It was released in 1990, to wide critical acclaim, adoration by their considerable fan base, and solid sales. Yet Mavers, being the dogged Scouse perfectionist he is, despised it. He universally rejected the album, not because of the songs or the band, but because it just didn’t sound the way he heard the tunes in his head, and lacked the power of their live renditions – “It’s terrible, like, d’ya know what I mean? It’s a croak, it’s non-musical and I think the record’s non rhythmical or anything. It’s just… a mess, like”. But it’s not. It’s fantastic. It preluded Britpop by at least 3 years with its subtle reflection of the past brought into the present, and it inspired soon to be massive bands like Oasis, whose chief, Noel Gallagher, considers Mavers a genius, if also a ‘lazy bastard’. Mavers himself succinctly summed up his constant predicament in a 1995 interview – “It’s like, the closer you get to perfection the closer you get to imperfection, simple as”.
But that constant strive for perfection led to a stellar, enduring set of tight, muscular and thrilling rock and pop music. The 12 tunes on the disc are short, sharp, pop tunes, filled with memorable hooks and punchy 60’s inspired rock melodies. You may think you’ve never heard of The La’s, but you’d be hard pushed to find someone who searches ‘There She Goes’ and doesn’t recognise it’s chiming, sparkling guitars, and simple, catchy as hell vocals. It’s one of the best pop songs ever written, it has no pretensions, is timeless, memorable and has layers (is ‘she’, who races through his veins, a girl or heroin?). Those same factors apply to the entirety of the album – this is simple, rootsey rock music, inspired by the past but not bound by it; bursting with life and hooks, and proves to be an endlessly fun set of tunes to blast out and sing along to.
Although numbers such as the near Merseybeat pastiche of ‘Liberty Ship’, and the stellar interjecting guitar hook of ‘Feelin’’ recall the 60’s they exist in their own space, and although the band may hate it, Lilywhite’s production helps emphasise The La’s as a unique and talented band. They sound like a British Invasion band from 1964 not because they wholeheartedly copy their inspirations, but simply because they create music that comes from the same roots and honest place. There’s no arty or pretentious reclamation of the 60’s here – in fact it almost seems as though the band unconsciously sound ‘retro’ as they pull it off so well, and it feels as though this is the only sound they were born to make. Mavers doesn’t make his music sound like the past deliberately – he just makes music the way he believes it should sound, and this honesty resonates and makes the band sound like originals in their own right.
Aside from all this, and surely as Mavers would argue himself, it’s just the songs that matter in the end, and boy, does this record have ‘em. In addition to the delights mentioned earlier, one can add ‘Son of a Gun’, with its winding, clipped rhythm, and the snarled rockers ‘I Can’t Sleep’ and ‘Failure’. ‘Way Out’ is an uplifting, 60’s-esque pop nugget, and ‘Timeless Melody’ has a gorgeous catchy melody that is…well, timeless! Other songs are less upbeat (yet nevertheless exciting and colourful), such as the hypnotic clip clop warning of ‘Doledrum’, the prophetic, ‘Freedom Song’, and the longest and most startling tune, closer ‘Looking Glass. Mavers vocals satisfy throughout alongside the muscular, uncluttered music playing. He does sweet as well as he does rocking, and injects real pain into lines such as “I’m not scared to die, God help me / But we went to the same school, and we / All learnt the same rules of lament” on the Kinksian ‘Freedom Song’, in addition to the affecting vulnerability in his voice on the soul searching epic that is ‘Looking Glass’.
The La’s is a timeless, enduring record, packed with short, hooky as hell rock and pop numbers, that reflect the glory days of classic British guitar music, without ever becoming a poor imitation. That there seems no chance of another La’s LP is sad but also oddly enticing – the album has become as mythical as its beguiling and aloof writer. Shortly after touring the album Mavers slid out of the limelight and become a relative recluse. He springs up every few years to do a handful of live gigs, playing the same set list he would in 1988; any writer who claims to have heard new songs being debuted may have not dug deep enough to discover b-sides and offcuts. In the main, The La’s is one album, one set of songs, and, despite John Power’s key role, one man, in Lee Mavers. According to long term fan Noel Gallagher, Mavers, when asked when the second La’s album will ever be made, simply says ‘When the first one is finished’. If only Mavers could realise that he is the only man to despise what comes as close to a perfect classic guitar pop record as there is.