How did I manage to miss Shack and Cast in the 1990s? I did hear The La’s at the time but really only the single “There She Goes.” These bands exude all the essential rudiments of great poprock: sparkly guitar lead lines, great vocal arrangements, with a healthy dose of swing. They have songs that can be carried off on just an acoustic guitar. Though the members of these bands were contemporaries, the bands themselves broke at different times, which was good because there was considerable overlap in the membership of these three groups.
Really, The La’s come first in 1990 with their sole proper album, the self-titled The La’s. As countless re-releases since then demonstrate, the album was actually recorded a number of times through the late 1980s with different producers: John Porter (the Smiths), John Leckie (XTC), Mike Hedges (the Cure), but finally with Steve Lillywhite (Big Country, U2) who upon comparative listens of the different versions really did nail the proper mix. The band’s creative force, Lee Mavens, was like a mad scientist never happy with his formula. He argued that the band’s sound was looser than the smooth sound Lillywhite produced, something perhaps better captured on the amazing BBC sessions recorded mostly in the late 1980s and released in 2006. The La’s is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Leaving aside the monster single, “There She Goes Again,” picking out the best tunes from this record is kind of like picking out the best Beatles’ song from Revolver or Rubber Soul. No one is going to agree. But my own personal faves include the rollicking “Son of Gun,” the sweet downward drift of “Timeless Melody,” the freewheeling acoustic blues of “Doledrum” (particularly the sprightly BBC version), the great guitar hooks of “Way Out,” and the early Beatles sound of “I.O.U.” Son of a GunI.O.U.Doledrum (BBC 1987)
But of course if Lee Mavens had only ever written and recorded “There She Goes” he would still be ripe for a lot of poprock glory. The song is practically a ‘how to’ of poprock single writing. The two versions featured here are striking for their differences from the album version. The first is the original 1988 single where the guitars are a bit more upfront. The second is an acoustic version recorded by Steve Lillywhite that really captures the range of Maven’s vocals. Oh what this band might have been if they just had more than one record in them.There She Goes (original 1988 single)There She Goes (Steve Lillywhite acoustic version)
Cast features La’s cast off, John Powers, who stuck through the long multiple sessions for the La’s debut, only to leave shortly after to escape Maven’s dysfunctional approach to recording and focus on his own songwriting. Cast’s 1995 debut, All Change, has some of the La’s acoustic trappings but cast in a broader rock vein – less skiffle, more Who. The whole record is strong but “Sandstorm” and “Fine Time” stand out. And unlike The La’s, the record was a hit, producing four top 20 singles in the UK. Two years later Mother Nature Calls had a great acoustic number in “Live the Dream” as well a strong B-side with “Dancing on the Flames.” Two more albums followed but by 2001 the band was ready to split. But their 2012 comeback album, Troubled Times, suggested no diminution in the winning formula, with the swinging acoustic “Bad Waters” a definite highlight. A new record is set to be released this fall.Fine TimeLive the DreamBad Waters
Shack preceded Cast in forming but followed them in gaining commercial success, with the early version the band including Peter Wilkinson, who would leave to join Cast. After struggling to get three records out between 1988 and 1991 that went largely unnoticed, Shack resurfaced in 1999 with their big breakthrough record, HMS Fable, a seeming distillation of all the acoustic and poprock sounds of the previous decade. “Comedy” would prove to be the band’s biggest hit but “I Want You” should have been released as single with its swirling vocal arrangements and great hooks. Discovering Cast and Shack after all these years is kind of like finding another book by your favourite author who is now deceased – you didn’t expect to get it so you enjoy it all the more.ComedyI Want You
I have to include this clip of The La’s appearing as a duo (Lee Mavens and John Powers) on Canadian Much Music television where the clueless Erica Em tries to interview them and in classic understated Liverpool style they dodge her questions but pull off a pretty amazing vocal and acoustic strumming performance.