The High Llamas
(V2 Music, Ltd.)
Orchestrated easy-listening pop is, by definition, supposed to be unambitious, soothing and relaxing -- or so a large number of us have been lazy enough to believe. But to hell with that: The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan composes as if he's campaigning for his own chapter in Elevator Music, author Joseph Lanza's terrific secret history of the style. The problem is that even though he's capable of crafting a punchy tune collection like 1992's Santa Barbara and beautiful, individual bits of whimsy, O'Hagan persists in his life's work of mashing Burt Bacharach, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles into Sergeant Bacharach's Lonely Pet Sounds Band. Unfortunately he seems to be inspired by the wrong periods in the careers of his models or to lack an understanding of the more fundamental stages each went through before endeavoring to complicate pop.
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If O'Hagan's previous tastes in arrangements -- using strings, vibraphones, banjos -- tell us anything, it's that he apparently started out preferring flourish to foundation. So while much of 1996's well-regarded and umpteen-tuned Hawaii was beautiful, the arrangements were so friction-free that a straight-ahead cover of Nick Drake's "At the Chime of a City Clock" sounded about as tough as something from Richard Thompson. Yet the Llamas just might have a weightless wonder in them somewhere, and Snowbug could be it. Even the highest-flying kite or balloon needs someone on the ground to hold the string, something O'Hagan seems to have realized. Throughout the release solid melodic themes are present -- armed, of course, with strings and horns as light as pool toys. And the Llamas' multipercussion keeps the vibes, electro-burbles, and harpsichords floating ahead at all times. Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen add some girth by singing on a couple of tunes, perhaps to return the favor for O'Hagan's appearance on the 'Lab's Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. Fixing a hole, indeed.