The La’s: “Timeless Melody”
I am quite adamant in my stance that The La’s hold a place in music history as having recorded the greatest album ever by a band that only released one album. That may seem like a pointless statistical anomaly, but it’s much more than that. I would certainly have no problem going even farther and saying that their 1990 debut (and only) album, The La’s, is one of the best debut albums by any group, one of the top 10 albums of the ’90s — and maybe even of the last 25 years — and so on. But I like to use the first “statistic” because it allows me to call it “the greatest.” And it deserves to have that superlative attached to it. Predating both Blur’s 1991 and Oasis’s 1994 debut albums, it must have had a significant influence on both bands and, in turn, that whole 1990s wave of “Brit pop.” But whereas you can clearly identify all of those two bands’ influences when hearing their music, what the La’s did that was most significant in their updating of the sound of the ’60s British Invasion was to reconfigure it into songs that seemed to owe less of a debt to any particular band, creating something that sounded like a throwback to that earlier time but not enslaved to it, and completely their own. Producer Steve Lillywhite doubtless should be given much credit for the feel of the record, but the songs stand on their own, regardless of the way they were recorded. Most of the album sounds like it could have been recorded in one take…except for the fact that band leader, singer, and songwriter (and one of rock’s great eccentrics) Lee Mavers was an intense perfectionist, so it’s likely they had to do many takes to get the songs to his liking. (Inexplicably, Mavers has been quoted as saying that the band “hated” the album…but I can’t for the life of me figure out why.) It was this perfectionism that ended up being the ruin of the band, depending on what rumors you believe (Mavers may have also had a drug problem and/or mental breakdown). After this album, despite apparent attempts to record a followup album, they have never been heard from on record again.
Most people are familiar with the La’s, if at all, through their somewhat ubiquitous single, “There She Goes,” which in addition to their version is also known via the inferior 1997 cover by Sixpence None the Richer. As great and timeless as that song is, there is at least one other equally timeless (and appropriately named) song on the album: “Timeless Melody.” With a furiously strummed acoustic intro mixed with chiming lead guitar notes, the song has an ethereal melody that seems to exist in a world of its own. It’s anthemic and personal at the same time, speaking to the ineffectiveness of words to say what one wants to say, and how music alone can often say so much more. It’s a universal statement that everyone can find some truth in, but is also Mavers’ own statement of his frustration with language. I see the song as evidence of Mavers’ internal struggle to get the music in his head out onto the recorded medium in the same way he hears it in there, which is very likely the struggle that ended up frustrating him to the point of giving up in the end. It’s a sad story on one hand, but at least there are this song and the album to document his sole attempt at overcoming that battle.