Belfast’s LaFaro have been patiently plugging away on the Northern Ireland music scene for over five years now; gigging, releasing a couple of EPs, twiddling their thumbs and generally hanging around waiting for a vibrant music scene to erupt around their persons. The Ulster rock scene is now suddenly buzzing well beyond its borders, as evidenced in the past year by the varying degrees of success that have been enjoyed by Two Door Cinema Club, General Fiasco and fellow Smalltown America act And So I Watch You From Afar. As such the release of the LaFaro’s debut self-titled album couldn’t really have been timed better.
The band have long been considered elders of the Northern Irish music scene, although their niche status suggests they’ll probably spend a lot more time there than any of the aforementioned bands; they lack both the crossover appeal of the former pairing and the sheer novelty value of latter. Nevertheless, they have established themselves as a highly sought-after live act on the UK & Ireland circuit, having listened to the album it’s not hard to imagine why. For a start, LaFaro is unerringly loud, often to the point of drowning out vocalist Jonny Black – even when it’s quiet, it’s really loud. There’s a very strong punk influence all across the record, from the slavish Nirvana-like devotion to the quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic to the off-kilter post-hardcore rhythms and often chaotic use of tinny dissonant chords.
The songs themselves are generally quite good, particularly towards the beginning of the album. Opener -Tuppenny Nudger’ was named the best song of the last five years by our contemporaries at Alternative Ulster, and its tight metallic verse-into-sloppy punk chorus is more or less a blueprint for every other song on the album. -Girl Is a Drummer’ has definitive echoes of the Wildhearts with sleazy lead guitar riff in tow, while -Chopper Is a Fucking Tout’ is straight-up choppy hardcore at double speed. Another highlight, -Mr. Heskey,’ is presumably the continuation of a peculiarly Irish tradition of writing songs in honour of unfairly maligned British footballers (think back to Super Extra Bonus Party’s -Mark Hughes Top Corner’ or Sultans Of Ping F.C.’s ode to Nigel Clough, -Give Him a Ball and a Yard of Grass,’ and watch out for the rumoured upcoming U2 single, -Jimmy Bullard (Angel of Hull)’)
As a full-length record, however, LaFaro doesn’t deliver nearly as much as the early tracks suggest it could. The rigid song structures become very predictable very quickly, and the vocals are mixed so low at points that it’s impossible to make out much of what Black has to say for himself. When he is intelligible, he’s usually heard feigning a leery London accent (I guess it’s more punk that way?), but the rare moments when his Belfast accent does shine through he tends to sound much, much better. The exception that proves the rule (or proves that I’m full of shit – either/or) is easily the album’s best track; -The Ballad of Burnt Dave’ is totally unlike anything else on the album, a Pogues/Flogging Molly-like ditty in which Black goes all proper cockney to great effect, while the rest of the band revels in serving up a bit of melody to counter the abrasive power-chord punk that saturates the other nine tracks.
Let none of the above negativity give the impression that LaFaro is an awful record – at its best, it’s top drawer, and there’s no doubt that this material would slay in a live environment. However, on record, when you need a little extra to keep you properly engaged for the full 40 minutes, it falls up an inch short musically, lyrically and in terms of originality.