The High Llamas 2024
Photo: Simon Russell / The Syn

The High Llamas Embrace Their Past, Present, and Future

Long-standing art pop collective, the High Llamas take big risks on their latest LP, redefining their sound with hip-hop, R&B, and a lot of Auto-Tune.

Hey Panda
The High Llamas
Drag City
29 March 2024

The High Llamas‘ first album in eight years, Hey Panda, isn’t just a comeback; it’s a reinvention. Their run of LPs from the early-to-mid 1990s was heavily influenced by the Beach Boys at their most blissed-out and psychedelic, culminating in the still-career-defining highlight Hawaii, a record so successful in its Brian Wilson worship, that a collaboration between head Llama Sean O’Hagan and Wilson was, at one point, on the cards.

But while those earlier albums could, if you were feeling cynical, be accused of edging into homage territory, the Llamas, much like O’Hagan’s previous bandmates in Stereolab, always had much more going on than just 1960s emulation—beneath the surface, their work is less about magpie-like mimicry and more about reimagining the sounds of the era.

1998’s (underrated) Cold and Bouncy leaned into experimental electro, while Talahomi Way (2011) contained richly textured orchestral pop arrangements. Their last effort, 2016’s Here Come the Rattling Trees, was a more stripped-down affair. However, where that album felt low-key and minimalistic, Hey Panda is a bold update of the group’s sound—layered, complex, day-glow-colored with decidedly modern R&B and hip-hop influences. Here is a band that’s not done evolving.

Tracks like “Fall Off the Mountain” blend the Llamas’ laconic East Coast vibe with sassy R&B, while “Sister Friends”, featuring lead vocals from English singer-songwriter Rae Morris, combines squashed electronics along with a polished indie folk warmth.

“How the Best Was Won”, co-written with Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Billy, springs surprises with trap beats and Auto-Tuned vocals. In the track’s slinky, soulful pop, it’s even possible to hear trace elements of the Weeknd, though with the Llamas’ more whimsical lyrical concerns: “Listen to the song of the birds / Listen to the squeal of the pigs.” The second collaboration—and standout track—with Oldham, “The Hungriest Man in the World”, marries classic (Auto-Tuned) soul with synthesized beats to world-weary lyrics.

The second single, “Toriafan”, continues this trend: ambient art pop with slick R&B, layered with O’Hagan’s autotuned honey-sweet vocals addressing his personal struggles with dyslexia: “Show me again, and again, and again, cause to see is to do, is the way that a few of us learn / It’s a thought, not a page.”

The press notes explicitly check some of the artists that inspired the record, including SZA, Tierra Whack, and Tyler the Creator (a long-term fan, apparently), to name just a few. Not that you need a press kit to hear that O’Hagan has decided to give the band’s sound a significant overhaul, and there’s perhaps no better example than the closer “Las Masse”, which neatly encapsulates the old-meets-new ethos. It combines gurgling keyboards and 1960s doo-wop, which eventually segues into lo-fi hip-hop beats and—yet more—heavily Auto-Tuned vocals. It’s nostalgic while also very much planted in the present.

Hey Panda is not without its misfires. The title track is catchy enough but is marred by a childish tone and throwaway lyrics, while the dawdling, nonsensical “Yoga Goat” is instantly forgettable.

But Hey Panda represents a successful, savvy update of their sound more often than not. In his mid-60s and more than 40 years into his recording career, O’Hagan continues to push the High Llamas into audacious, technicolored new territory. His refusal to rest on his laurels, embracing the now with one eye on the future, demands respect.

In “The Hungriest Man in the World”, O’Hagan presents a paradox: “I’ve never denied myself anything / Yet my whole life is as one spent fasting / The hungriest man in the world for so long.” For armchair analysts, these lyrics might hint at a spiritual emptiness accompanying endless indulgence, the futility of clamoring for life’s next big hit. But there’s a more prosaic, surface-level reading as well—he’s still hungry.

RATING 8 / 10