THE GREAT CURVE 011
curated by Todd Berryman
Here’s one I got reacquainted with recently, a story of an album whose musicians – well, at least one – disowned, for reasons I can’t entirely understand, because it’s pretty danged awesome.
The La’s (1990)
This is one of those albums whose songs can never fail to give me joy when I hear them come up on shuffle on my iPod. And that’s what happened a few days ago: the songs “Timeless Melody” and “Liberty Ship” popped up unexpectedly and reminded me of how amazing – if short – this album actually IS. I try very hard to make sure that the albums I pick for THE GREAT CURVE run around 20 minutes a side, otherwise, to me, it isn’t an album. An odd affectation, probably, but that’s how I’m wired – an album should really feel like an album, not an extended play. 40-plus minutes just feels right to my ear as a listening experience. Having said that, I’d rather have 35 really damned awesome minutes than 44 that feel like one single and a bunch of inconsequential shit, you know? That’s why I can cut some slack for the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. and the Clash’s London Calling as short double albums, because they’re so uniformly good.
Like a few other people in my college days, in those pre-grunge years and in the depths of pop glut (mostly) in the top 40, the single “There She Goes” kinda reminded me of how it was supposed to be. Well-crafted, catchy, guitar-based pop that the early-to-mid ’60s Beatles wouldn’t have been ashamed to write (and the comparison isn’t as far-fetched as you may think; this band’s hometown was also Liverpool). Barring one song that clocked in around 8 minutes, that’s how the entirety of the one and only official La’s album struck me…almost like it fell out of a time warp from some alternative mid-1960s horizon, a level of songcraft, two and three minutes at a time, that not much else could touch. (There has been an expanded reissue relatively recently that includes other versions of some of the songs, and some B-side material, but I’m mainly focusing on the original release here.)
“There She Goes” made its first appearance in England in 1988, and that version of the song was produced by Bob Andrews and engineered by Dave Charles. It’s a classic “the ingredients are good” song, with Charles’ engineering reflecting his sonic heritage nicely; most obviously, he also engineered and played drums for Dave Edmunds in the 1980s, around the time Edmunds was working with Jeff Lynne of ELO. Drummer Chris Sharrock makes his only appearance in The La’s on this song, as the band’s membership was fairly fluid during the three years it took for the entire album to come to light (Sharrock would eventually join World Party).
What must be remembered at this point is that the band’s membership had been a revolving door for years, and attempts had been made to record the songs repeatedly, but never to the satisfaction of songwriter L.A. Mavers (whom, ironically, the band was NOT named after, as they’d actually formed a year before he joined). Multiple approaches to the debut album with several producers were made and scrapped, to the point that one version of the songs only existed on a cassette and later surfaced on the album’s deluxe reissue. The result: over the course of the sessions he was producing, “There She Goes” was remixed by Steve Lillywhite. He was basically the last producer left holding the bag, and coming off successful work with U2, with the remix of the big hit intended to make sure that it matched the rest of the album, so it could be included.
Now, normally I’m not a big believer in the art of the finicky performer…I hear stories about rejected albums again and again, and often we discover that the sensitive singer-songwriter is nitpicking to the point that there are infinitesimally small differences that no one can hear. The La’s is actually the rare exception, in that the few alternate versions of songs I’ve heard have tended to be radically different. Steve Lillywhite met the same fate as his predecessors, but happened to be the producer holding the bag when the record label (Go! Discs) cut off funding and said, in effect, “put out what you have.” The result is that Mavers and the band have tended to disown the final result, which is a shame, because it’s pretty solid. And to be fair, many of the prior approaches were equally good, but didn’t quite follow the same sonic model, and would’ve been hard to match even in remixing.
Having fallen for “There She Goes” in the Lillywhite remix, which was pretty much the only way America heard it, I bought cassettes of The La’s and Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home in spring 1991, and played them to death over the next few months. In fact, my tape of the La’s album was pretty much worn out quickly – this is back when record labels were often indifferent to what quality of tape stock was being used to load their cassettes, and it was already starting to wind too tight and jam by the second or third play, in my cousin Bryan’s car. I upgraded to CD by the fall, and left a dub of the CD’s songs on cassette in the car for my drives to Columbus from Terre Haute, when I started my career in commercial radio, heading into the spring of 1992.
The story of their best known song might have died there, with me being one of a handful of apparent fans, but that changed in 1993 when both the Boo Radleys cover and the La’s version of “There She Goes” both made an appearance on the soundtrack to the Mike Myers film So I Married an Axe Murderer. The Boo Radleys version helped get the original more notice, as did a Sixpence None the Richer take at the end of the century – but neither could quite nail the magic the same way.
Pretty much out of the box, I fell for this album, and discovered as I often have that sometimes the most accessible song on an album isn’t necessarily the best, or even the catchiest. The reason I even bought it on cassette in the first place was because I anticipated only liking one song which would get dubbed into a mixtape, and I didn’t want to pay $18 for an album I’d probably listen to once, and hate. Instead, I ended up buying the compact disc out of necessity. It sometimes works like that. 🙂
When I popped it into the tape player, I remembered being utterly swoony from the opener, and thinking, well, okay, I got this wrong. There are TWO good songs to go on that mixtape.
Then “I Can’t Sleep” followed with a more blatantly rockist sensibility, primarily because it felt more electric. A good song, but at first listen, it didn’t feel quite as essential. “Timeless Melody” coming third reconciled the distance between the other two songs nicely though, with the almost punky acoustic guitar attack strafed by an electric line that wouldn’t have been out of place on The Unforgettable Fire. It’s probably the point when Steve Lillywhite’s production touch – at least for that era, anyway – becomes most obvious.
So, at that point, I was feeling much more confident about having bought the cassette, that maybe there’d be more pleasure than I initially had reason to expect, and then “Liberty Ship” lit it off a little more, with the surprise addition of mandolin and almost a busky sound, were it not for John Powers’ pulsating and perfect melodic bass. But then that ambient electric comes flowing in after the song’s last verse and changes everything, tilting it somewhere else, almost personifying the lyric. “Doledrum” closed the side, more obviously a song that had skiffle’s influence all over acting as “Liberty Ship” Mark II, simultaneously complementing and feeling like a prelude of sorts to the other piece, but in the wrong slot.
That’s when I thought this album doesn’t owe me anything else. I flipped the tape over, and continued to be amazed, from the propulsion of the locked-in rhythm in the guitars and bass (Powers again, simply jaw-dropping with the note choices in the progression) on “Feelin'” to the lost-anthem-with-electric-flamenco-and-undertow-and-harmonics-and-great-harmonies-on-the-choruses of “Way Out” (rerecorded, not the original single) and on and on and on to the epic closing track “Looking Glass” taking up about a fourth of the album’s real estate. Literally every song has at least one hook, one instrumental twist where an instrument rubs against the grain perfectly, one off-kilter vocal background in the mix, that saves a song even if you’re not totally invested in the overall result. You simply have to experience it, to “get” it. And I envy you the discovery.
The whole album here, in one file, for ease and convenience. 🙂 (There are time references in the info on this post, so you can go to the individual songs.)
And some bonus listening, so that you know it’s not all hype. This is functionally an “unplugged” rendition of “Way Out” from a different producer, so inspiring that I tried to figure out how to play the high parts on guitar…and walked away from the instrument yet again. In retrospect, I’m now thinking it’s a ukulele…