You can generally separate people into two classes: Those who love The La's, and those who've never heard 'em. Okay, that's not really true—but in a fair world it would be. For a band that only made one album, which they wrote off immediately upon release, they've enjoyed a hell of a ride as the poster boys for the age old tale of talented musicians who could't help from shooting themselves in their collective foot. So, twenty years after The La's came out, is it surprising to find a 4-CD box set that comprises all the other versions of songs from their sole album outing that were recorded way back then? It shouldn't be.
Callin' All is two discs of A-sides, B-sides, and outtakes, plus two discs of live recordings, including two complete concerts from 1989 and '91, and a detailed book about why Lee Mavers virtually ran his band into the ground trying to find the perfect takes or recordings of a dozen songs that define indie pop in its most pleasurable form. And that is, songs where great melodies are key, simple, thoughtful lyrics are the keyring, and chiming acoustic and electric guitars are the hasp. [Lord, that is the worst analogy I've ever typed!] Surely you've heard "There She Goes," the song on which what little popularity the band's enjoyed is hung. And chances are, if you're reading this review (and not sleeping at the laptop), you've heard the other great songs that make up their lone LP, produced primarily by Steve Lillywhite from what he thought were the best recordings and takes available. Well, long story short, Mavers was never happy with the album, continued recording the same songs (with big league producers like Bob Andrews, John Leckie, Mike Hedges, and more), and eventually drove his bandmates and fanmates nuts. The band splintered (trusty righthand man and bassist John Power went on to play in Cast), the fans moved on, and poor ol' Lee kept on at it.
This box set is for those of us who can't get enough of The La's and Mavers' raspy-but-right vocal delivery, even if it means shelling out 40 pounds for umpteen versions of "IOU," "I Can't Sleep," "Doledrum," "Looking Glass," and the other brilliant gems that make up the bulk of his songbook. There aren't a lot of major differences in the different takes, but they are a pleasurable lot (and they're different from the ones that make up disc 2 of the Deluxe Edition of The La's), and even if they're a bit much, there are two great concerts and two radio sessions that show what these guys were like in front of an audience. I count myself lucky that I got to see them in the summer of '91 when they played New York City during the CMJ music conference (quite possibly the best perk I got while working at AEI).
It's a real nice box, Callin' All, even if it does look a lot like those two box sets Billy Bragg put out a few years ago (they were initially on the same label), but it's worth the cost and the hunt. Yeah, it may have more versions of "Son of a Gun" than most mortals can stand, but personally I think it's fine if you're in the right line...
4/5 (Polydor UK)