On “Bach Ze”, the opening track of the High Llamas’ Snowbug record, lead singer Sean O’Hagan twice sings, “it’s now a flashback for a dedicated few.” Simple-minded critics easily dismiss O’Hagan and his Llamas as little more than Beach Boys or Brian Wilson revisionists, as indeed nothing more than a flashback to the sunny sounds, honeyed harmonies and lush layers of the Pet Sounds era.
27 Feb 2004: Empty Bottle Chicago
The answer to such criticism can be found in “Hot Revivalist” from Gideon Gaye, where O’Hagan’s earnest voice pleads, “let’s rebuild the past because the future won’t last.” What the Llamas have created over their many stellar records is a sweet symphonic pop sound rich in bright horns, swooning strings, hummable melodies and bouncy rhythms. O’Hagan finds a musical plane that exists at the intersection of the aforementioned Beach Boys, the glistening shine of Burt Bacharach, the jazzy noodlings of Steely Dan and the breezy bliss of Brazilian tropicalia. Yet the High Llamas never sound like the mere sum of their influences; rather they are timeless in the mood and feel of their songs.
The question was how would the High Llamas’ sound, so lavishly polished in the studio with string arrangements, horn sections, and electronic tinkering, translate to a live setting. The answer was heavenly. Without a single string or horn, the High Llamas relied on the strength of melody and harmony, the interplay of the gentle strum of O’Hagan’s acoustic guitar, Marcus Holdaway’s moody organ whirls and Dominic Murcot’s breathy jazzy tinker-taps of the vibraphone.
Over the course of the concert, the High Llamas crafted a music of many colors, dipping into the breadth of their catalog for a night of seamless sounds and enveloping moods. From the sweet, warm, bouncy tri-partite vocal harmonies of “Glad Time” and its chirps and whirs of synthesized wizardry, the Llamas slid into the twinkling shine of two tracks from Snowbug, “Harper’s Romo” and “Bach Ze”, with their looping, loping melodies and percolating beats. To the mix of drums, piano, guitar, organ, and vibes, Pete Aves added the percussive plink of a banjo. When was the last time you saw a banjo at a rock show?
In reality maybe the High Llamas aren’t a rock band. There’s no screech or squelch, no thunder or roar, but something equally memorable and dramatic. O’Hagan and company found a groove or maybe a realm or rarefied aura where the music and melody washed in shimmering radiant beauty sprinkled with sounds simple as sleigh bells or brushed drum skins. Cue “Rotary Hop”, a tune from last year’s Beet, Maize and Corn that namechecks the experimental musical maestro Captain Beefheart. Truly stunning was this quiet, plaintive ballad as it soared on the dulcet plucks of dueling acoustic guitars, breathy wisps of vibraphone, the threnodic hum of organ, and the sparest percussion of two tambourines lightly tapped in a steady one-two, one-two-three beat. Disquieting in its beauty, “Rotary Hop” could be O’Hagan’s answer to those who brand him a scant copyist as he sings in his melodious timbre that “it’s time to look for somewhere new.”
More than “the flashback for the dedicated few,” the High Llamas prove to be masters of a music ever memorable in its ageless beauty. O’Hagan’s tunes in all their jingle and jangle, sweet la-la harmonies, lilting melodies and breezy beats stand as testaments to the joy of pop music.