Music

La Rocca: The Truth

Despite a variety of touchstones in both the UK and the US, this Irish band's debut full-length is a fully self-realized pop acheivement that begs for repeated listens.


La Rocca

The Truth

Label: Dangerbird
US Release Date: 2006-08-08
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.