The High Llamas are Sean O’Hagan’s musical camelid, and each of their recordings offer variations on familiar themes—albeit themes much more musical than lyrical. For instance, if you can figure out what the title song, Clan Cladders means, you’re a more astute pop music scholar than I. The track’s words have something to do with poetry readings before the war. But that’s about all I can make of it.
It is far easier to describe O’Hagan’s musical messages, however. He has much in common with Eric Matthews and Richard Davis, in that his inspirations date way back to Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach and classic ‘60s pop. “Cave Cutter (Hills and Fields” (for you Wilson-heads) features O’Hagan’s most Brian-y, Pet Sounds vocal on this effort. “The Old Springtown”, on the other hand, sports soft ‘n happy tempos associated with Brian Wilson music. But it also comes off a little incongruous, what with the track’s cheesy keyboards, vulnerable high vocal, middle of the road string sweeps and ooh and aah vocals. It shouldn’t fit together, yet somehow it does.
He sings it over soulful strings, and Can Cladders boasts bountiful strings. These elements are provided by a quartet of players, whose contributions vary greatly from track to track. Strings add staccato rhythms to “Honeytrap”, for instance, rather than sweetening, but then help create the quiet mood of “The Old Spring Town”.
O’Hagan enjoys combining unlikely instrumental elements—perhaps, just to see what happens. The extremely short “Boing Backwards” sports banjo, whereas “Dorothy Ashby” contains harp. And rather than applying rock power chords, he usually uses entirely different six-string textures. “Can Cladders” matches piano, vibes, and strings with jazzy guitar. “Rollin’” applies its swinging jazz rhythm to O’Hagan’s lower-than-usual vocal. One other rhythmic anomaly is “Clarion Union Hall”. Its elements include girly backing vocal la-la-las and shifting string tempos to give it a sea chantey tempo, as well as slight touches of jazz guitar. You can’t say O’Hagan’s songs are completely un-rhythmic, but drums are sparsely noticeable. You can hear them clicking along during “Winter’s Day”, which sounds like an answer song to Mamas & The Papa’s “California Dreamin’” in places. This track also beautifully mimics Burt Bacharach’s insistent acoustic piano sound. Its tempo speeds up at the end, which you would never have heard in ‘60s AM radio pop and one of the few moments that give away this disc’s contemporary release date.
A severe lack of authoritative singing prevents O’Hagan’s songs from forcing the listener sit up and take notice. His high, thin voice melts into the mix, just like any another instrument. It may be unfair to compare O’Hagan’s vocalizing to Brian Wilson’s, but in some respects he’s asked for this side-by-side comparison. On Beach Boys songs, Wilson could sing in a nasal, young man’s voice. Yet he also knew how to use it, along with his brothers, to create beatific harmonies, too. During “Honeytrap”, O’Hagan hints at an ability to vary his vocal modes because he’s required to rattle off its many words in quick succession, instead of floating his voice high into the vocal stratosphere. But this is about as much as he stretches himself vocally overall.
Furthermore, Brian Wilson always used sonic frills to express inner angst. To this day, I don’t know how he did it. Wilson was emo—in approach, at least—before that annoying style existed. Yet even though he was heartsick much of the time, he was still able fill his tragic recordings with plenty of love. O’Hagan seems to love style far more than substance. With the best Beach Boys songs, listeners gained insight into Wilson’s troubled world—whether they really wanted to see his hurt or not. But O’Hagan is more likely to paint what he sees in the world around him, without ever putting himself into his pictures.
Until O’Hagan is gutsy enough to put his feelings into the foreground, The High Llamas will remain little more than background music. Granted, The High Llamas create wonderful background music. But easy listening music doesn’t always need to be this mindless.