Photo: Steve Brummell / Courtesy of Drag City

Sean O’Hagan Breathes New Life Into MOR with ‘Radum Calls, Radum Calls’

The head High Llama, Sean O'Hagan reaches way beyond pop to make the surreal easy listening album, Radum Calls, Radum Calls.

Radum Calls, Radum Calls
Sean O'Hagan
Drag City
25 October 2019

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, European radio listeners weren’t blessed with the multitude of specialist stations that littered the airwaves of the US. Instead, teenagers hungry for something that didn’t sound like their parent’s pre-war record collection would restlessly spin the dial, until something vaguely contemporary crackled out of their transistor radio, only to have it disappear in a wave of static and reappear as something else. Beatles tunes would segue queasily into songs from the shows, fade away, and reappear as easy listening library music until vanishing into white noise. That experience seems to have made a huge impression on a young Sean O’Hagan.

Radum Calls, Radum Calls is O’Hagan’s second solo album. Sandwiched between this and High Llamas – his 1990 solo debut, is a catalogue full of fascinating and eclectic work. On his 2019 record, he’s honed his sound down to a kind of surreal MOR, played almost entirely on analog synthesizers, Bontempi organs, tick-tock drum boxes, and a harp. Some of it sounds like music from a BBC wildlife documentary from 1968. All of it is rather fascinating.

So, having filled his studio with vintage and esoteric equipment, he settles down to record the dozens of fragments of melody that fill his head. The opening track “Candy Clock” could be three separate songs, cut and pasted together, linked only by a prehistoric drum box, pitter-pattering in the background. Unbelievably, O’Hagan makes it work, his breathy voice augmented by the more strident approach of his former Microdisney bandmate, Cathal Coughlan. Coughlan crops up on a few tunes on Radum Calls, Radum Calls and croons along in a very pleasing manner.

O’Hagan’s skill is taking material to the brink of schmaltz, and then, at the last second, he’ll throw in a disorientating chord change that takes the music somewhere else. “I Am Here” is built on a limpid string arrangement and topped by O’Hagan’s dulcet tones. It could have ended up like some high class, early ’60s lift music, but thankfully, it just sounds fresh and light. That’s a real skill. “The Paykan”, however, is a bit too Disney for its own good.

The prize for the least appropriate use of synth bass goes to “McCardle Brown” where a squelchy, seventies blaxploitation bass noise, squirts in and out of a selection of state of the art (in 1964) keyboards. It’s lovely. And genuinely weird. Almost as weird as the Jon Lord organ sound that threatens the gossamer melodies of “Clearing House”.

You could be forgiven for thinking that some songs on Radum Calls, Radum Calls were written as demos for a Fifth Dimension reunion album, but O’Hagan blew all the budget on a harpist and a bunch of old keyboards. I can’t imagine them singing “but celebrate with your fist”, as Cathal Coughlan does on “Spoken Gem”. Now that’s a pretty scary image.

In amongst the almost-but-not-quite-kitschiness of it all is “Sancto Electrical”. Whoever arranged the strings for that deserves Monday off at the very least. The string section excels again on “Radum Calls”. There they reign supreme for the first two minutes of the tune before a brief and rather jarring vocal appears before leaving the strings, acoustic guitar, harp, and a bit of tuned percussion to see us off to bed. Gradually it fades, like O’Hagans old transistor radio.

There is almost a surfeit of good ideas on Radum Calls, Radum Calls. Sometimes you wish O’Hagan would have developed one idea a little more, before moving on to the next. The album is a weird third cousin to Todd Rundgren’s A Wizard, A True Star, where ideas pop up and vanish as the restless mind of the creator moves on to something else. That sometimes leaves the listener slightly baffled, but never bored. And definitely intrigued.

RATING 7 / 10