The Irish Keep Gate Crashing
At first blush it might seem like heavy-handed regionalism to tie La Rocca to the Thrills. Sure, they’re both Irish bands, and they both play guitar pop, but then again, the same description applies to U2, or even Hothouse Flowers, and it’s not like there’s a uniformly established “Irish pop” sound or scene to which they adhere or that describes the band.
Ah, but look into it a little more and some connections, both formal and informal, begin to reveal themselves. Both La Rocca and the Thrills are from Dublin (La Rocca by way of Cardiff), and both cut their teeth on the London circuit, though this is certainly not unique to the two bands. What is an undeniable connection is the fact that both bands were brought to Los Angeles to record their debuts, and both did so under the guidance of producer Tony Hoffer.
So it’s not entirely wrong to tie the two bands together, and it might even be possible to say that La Rocca picks up where the Thrills recently left off—or at least that if you like the Thrills, you will probably share an affinity for La Rocca. But don’t confuse the two bands. Whereas the Thrills approached their pop love with their Beach Boys obsessions boldly on display, crafting a Britpop take on Southern California with Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks as muses, La Rocca’s US appropriations are more rootsy, steeped in the country-inflected college rock that generated the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo. And just as Conor Deasy’s voice teases at SoCal AM country-rock of the ‘70s with its twangy drawl, La Rocca’s vocalist, Bjorn Baillie, channels a fair bit of Paul Westerberg’s husky gravel. Not that La Rocca is by any means an alt-country band—throughout there’s an undeniable stadium pop yearning in this music that pulls straight from the UK.
It catches you immediately in the opener, “Sketches (20 Something Life)”, a song destined for mix tape and stadium show glory. An electric hum bass tone switches on, followed by a simple Townshend-like guitar chord, a basic drum pattern kicks in, then the high-end melody of the twinkling organ part bursts like a smile, a quick “Yeah!” from Baillie, and the song erupts forward into an almost Weezer-ish pop moment before settling into a quick-pace stroll in Baillie’s hands, maintaining a surging rhythm throughout. In pacing and in tone, the song feels like a cousin of the Jam’s “Man in a Cornershop”, Stereophonics’ “Local Boy in a Photograph”, and even Pulp’s “Common People”, as crooned by a young and energetic Westerberg. Lyrically, the song poetically strains against the boundaries of an aimless youth, dissecting bohemian freedom into its loneliness and desperate search for something real, reducing to the chorus’s claim that “All I have’s this journal that I write / Sketches of a twenty-something life”. But rather than either venerate or repudiate this life, the bridge throws the super-successful alternative into ironic relief. And all that wrapped up in a fun, hooky guitar pop song.
If the songwriting is solid, then La Rocca’s secret weapon is definitely the keyboard work of Nick Haworth, which Hoffer’s production smartly foregrounds in every song, acting as either harmony or counterpoint to Baillie’s voice. While the guitar and bass work of Bjorn and Simon Baillie respectively is more than adequate, Hoffer knows that guitar pop is hardly fresh ground for creating a stir. But Haworth’s keys act as distinct component of these songs, rather than simple accompaniment, and the production favors them.
Unfortunately, the buzzing synths can’t quite give “If You Need the Morning” the chops it needs to maintain the momentum set by the opener. The song does give us the first real hints of the country tinting that pops up throughout The Truth, but despite its good clip, it still feels like a bit of slowing down after the force of “Sketches”. Not so “This Life”, one of La Rocca’s earliest-penned songs, dating back to their Cardiff days and surviving to the present as one of their catchiest numbers. Slated as the first single from The Truth, “This Life” feels like a lost Jellyfish number from Spilt Milk—all power-pop purity, Baillie echoing Andy Sturmer and Haworth offering a killer piano-synth pairing that would do Roger Manning proud.
The truly dusty, Western moment here is the title track, a slow country waltz that’s imbued with a bluesy folk lament, underscored by a saloon piano foundation. While the song sounds like a songwriter’s personalized paean to a misbegotten life of trading in fictions (“And if I was a shadow / On a long, lonely gallows / They’d hang me and pull off my lip / ‘Cause making up stories / Was all I could do / And you know that the truth ain’t worth shit”), in fact Baillie admits that the song was inspired by some reading he’d done about a yellow journalist from the past who’d been caught in his printed lies. Still, it makes for a great processional march, and the song’s diversion from the guitar pop formula shows what La Rocca can really do as artists. That same spirit returns again in “Some You Give Away”, an acoustic road ballad that touches on a blues that even recalls the Stones.
But it’s the force of the driving, propulsive songs that gives The Truth most of its character. The big pop swell of the piano-anchored “Goodnight” is arena-ready to play alongside Coldplay and Keane, while “Sing Song Sung” (the one holdover from this year’s earlier EP of the same name) is a terse, upbeat piece of indie rock marrying the album’s tightest rock guitars with a jaunty melody of chimes. “Eyes While Open” openly cribs from the World Party playbook, full of Karl Wallinger’s sociopolitical Dylan appropriations and having the chutzpah to actually drop Dylan’s name in the lyrics. But it’s the late-album track “Cats” that nearly steals the show in all its strident exuberance. Sounding as much like contemporary Canadian indie as anything, owing perhaps to the chilly vibes tones employed by Haworth, the track climbs steadily to a rising chorus the bursts into assertive strains, Baillie’s voice reaching with every swell. And if “Non Believer” sounds overtly like All That You Can’t Leave Behind-era U2, well, hell, La Rocca’s fellow countrymen aren’t the biggest band in the world for nothing. Baillie does a more than passable Bono imitation, and it’s the one moment where this soundalike comparison is wholly true.
As “Capitol Pill” takes things out with an Americana-fueled piano waltz that Ryan Adams would kill for, it’s clear that La Rocca’s The Truth is a self-assured debut by a band that has serious chops, unafraid to milk its various influences and capable of playing in a variety of modes and styles without losing a sense of self. While they may reference or remind, rarely does it seem like La Rocca is trying to imitate. La Rocca don’t succeed by being unlike anything you’ve ever heard—they succeed, in the best pop tradition, by sounding familiar yet retaining a sense of identity. As a bridge between US and UK pop tradition, the album is remarkable for the place it stakes out for itself. The Truth isn’t a sheer wall of brilliance from start to finish, but neither can it truly be said to contain filler. Instead, it’s a strictly enjoyable collection of 11 songs that never feel clipped nor overstay their welcome, with hooks and melodies that linger.
Whether there’s a true Irish pop scene brewing is difficult to say, but Tony Hoffer’s sure managed to discover and produce two gems from the Emerald Isle in the last few years, and beginning with the Thrills’ So Much for the City in 2003 up to the present in La Rocca, some merger of pop traditions seems to be coming out of Ireland these days. All the better that La Rocca manage to stand on their own as they forge this path.
// Notes from the Road
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