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The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy

Most bands work within established genres, such as rock, folk, or blues. Some mine more specific veins, like fusion or psychedelia. A few bands fall into minicategories; acid-jazz or chamber-pop come to mind. The High Llamas, however, model their work on a single song: the Beach Boys' "Let's Go Away for Awhile." That track, from the landmark album Pet Sounds (1966), stands as one of Brian Wilson's most evocative compositions -- a pastoral landscape painted with golden horns, bright xylophones, and syrupy strings -- and it pretty much serves as the blueprint for everything the High Llamas have created throughout their six-year career.

The High Llamas are a fluctuating group of musicians who assemble under the leadership of Sean O'Hagan, a versatile Irish popsmith and composer who also serves as the string arranger for the electronica group Stereolab. O'Hagan is likely responsible for that band's steady drift toward Muzak; Stereolab's mellifluous last album, Dots and Loops, sounds very much like Cold and Bouncy. Thematically, however, Stereolab likes to venture into chilly space, while O'Hagan prefers to traverse the green pastures of Earth.

O'Hagan sometimes explicitly states his destination (as with the albums Santa Barbara and Hawaii) and sometimes leaves it to the listener to make a guess. (Gideon Gaye's corny, cozy melodies seem to depict a quaint Irish village.) But Cold and Bouncy conjures up a whimsical fantasyland -- perhaps an upscale bar on H.R. Pufnstuf's Living Island. Songs such as "Lobby Bears," "Evergreen Vampo," and "Didball" bear the usual High Llamas trademarks (happy banjos, soothing flutes, those too-cool xylophones), and O'Hagan still sings and writes like a children's entertainer ("Christmas hitlist/Scared half witless/Showstop hip-hop/Drifting on the dial"). But new sounds indicate that Stereolab's futuristic music has rubbed off on O'Hagan. Computers chirp along with his friendly voice on "Three Point Scrabble," while Star Trek choruses abound on "Glide Time." And everywhere there are banks of bubbling, squirting synthesizers.

These sixteen compositions are, like all of O'Hagan's work, phenomenally sophisticated. Like Brian Wilson, O'Hagan has an instinctive genius for effective studio arrangements and instrumental combinations; his music is by turns wistful, grand, and even stirring. Yet O'Hagan will probably always be stuck in one place: the Southern California coast, circa 1966. Come to think of it, that was a fantasyland, too.

-- Rafer Guzman

James Iha
Let It Come Down

Nobody likes a whiner, unless that whiner is backed by a wall of amplifiers the way Billy Corgan usually is. The leader of Smashing Pumpkins gets away with his laughable self-pity ("I'm in love with my sadness") by burying it all under mind-numbing power chords. Unfortunately, Smashing Pumpkins' bassist, James Iha, has decided to let his whining stand nakedly on its own.

In what some critics have called a "brave" move, Iha has released a debut solo album, Let It Come Down, filled with basic love songs. Most of the eleven tracks sound like scraps from the Carpenters' cutting room floor: Iha croons '70s-style ballads of romance and longing full of sappy sentiments, such as "The sound of love is oceans far away" (from "Sound of Love") and "We're lovers dear, and we're honestly together somehow and tied with silver string" (from "Silver String"). Iha's music lacks the bite that makes the Pumpkins' lyrics palatable, and his prose is about as sophisticated as an eighth-grader's diary. So, yes, he is brave to sing this stuff publicly.

His clumsy juxtaposition of "half smile, country mile, angel child" (on "Country Girl") smacks of hokiness, but it's better than his attempt to sing Partridge Family-style scat ("ba ba bam bamp") on "Jealousy." The only truly good song on the album is "Winter," a haunting tune with a simple melody that sounds like a modern-day nursery rhyme.

Occasionally Iha orchestrates some nice harmonies with his guitar and an accordion, but not nearly often enough to sustain the album. Most of the material here would be better off on a Hanson CD; at least then it could be excused as sincere adolescent sentiment. Here it's just fodder for self-pitying adults.

-- Liesa Goins

Will Bernard 4-Tet
Medicine Hat

Will Bernard, the former guitarist for the quirky San Francisco jazz combo T.J. Kirk, shows dynamic bluesy chops with his new band's first release, Medicine Hat. But Bernard's true talent lies in composition. The Will Bernard 4-Tet, featuring Rob Burger on Hammond B-3 organ and accordion, John Shifflett on acoustic bass, and Scott Amendola on drums, wouldn't know a conventional melody if it bit into one. The songs on Medicine Hat follow a musical map that only a madman could design.

The sound here is mostly in a blues and funk groove, with the B-3 lending a dramatic urgency to the proceedings. Though Bernard's playing is clean and fluid, his generous use of wah-wah combines with the guttural organ to create a grimy, back-alley vibe. Amendola is quite agile with the sticks, creating snare-drum sonatas and unconventional rhythms that lead to obscure conclusions. The open sound of the bass creates a warmth that leaves the harmonies room to wander.

The album opens with a few rump-shakers, which may lead the listener to the mistaken conclusion that Medicine Hat is a danceable record. The playful shuffle-stomp of "Boomtown" (featuring bass clarinet by Beth Custer, a quirky Bay Area artist in her own right) could be the theme of a '60s detective show or perhaps the backdrop for a Jets-vs.-Sharks rumble. The title track slows the pace to a swagger. Bernard's economical solos seem like quiet celebrations, yet a discordant fog seeps through the harmonies. This feeling continues throughout the album: in the deep, dark floor-toms of "Prankster," the walking blues of "3-Ply," and the hipster tango of "Trap Door Spider."

The 4-Tet can pack a lot of unpredictability into a small space. In a way, every song on Medicine Hat is a musical Cracker Jack box: There's always a little surprise to be found, and working your way to it is half the fun.

-- Larry Getlen

Victoria Williams
Musings of a Creekdipper

Victoria Williams has not always been the best interpreter of her own philosophical, sharply crafted songs. Musings of a Creekdipper, her sixth release, finds Williams once again pondering her journey through life and describing the soulful characters she's encountered along the way. But this time out, the moody atmospherics come courtesy of Trina Shoemaker, a long-time engineer for Daniel Lanois and the coproducer of Sheryl Crow's latest album. In sharing the production duties with Williams, Shoemaker has provided a compelling backdrop for this new material.

In the past Williams has tended to get a little loopy with her singing style, doing service to the moment but not always to the song. Here, however, she is mostly clear and purposeful, and nothing sacred is lost in the transition. Williams also expands her traditional guitar/bass/drums arrangements with a broad, extemporaneous sound that makes use of piano, calimba, various horns, flute, viola, cello, and even Chamberlin strings. These elements are particularly winning in the cagey, syncopated sway of "Last Word," the rolling beauty of "Periwinkle Sky," and a spacious, jazzy reading of the Eden Abel classic "Nature Boy."

Williams' newly tempered sense of drama shines through on the ghostly square dance of "Kashmir's Corn," in which Greg Leisz's lonely pedal steel guitar engages Williams' deliberately plucked banjo. "Tree Song," a quiet meditation on her relationship with the plant world, is so low-key that it practically loiters in the grooves. On "Allergic Boy" a lazy melody accompanies Williams' funny yet sorry story of the hypersensitive kid everyone knew in grade school. But "Grandpa in the Cornpatch" is where Williams is really in her element, sketching out the details of one man's life. Here, in the persona of a farmer surveying his land after a lifetime of work, Williams sighs, "I wish I could fly and see everyone I love in the blink of an eye."

The core strength of Williams' Southern-style storytelling has always been her ability to document the small nuances of existence and find the larger truths that inform all of our lives. Musings of a Creekdipper finally presents this essential gift of hers in a package that sensibly contains her freewheeling spirit.

-- Robin Myrick

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