Sean O’Hagan’s High Llamas have always trafficked in idyllic fantasyland soundscapes; a land mapped out via the sunny day audio real estate and romance of the Beach Boys and Bossa Nova, as well as lush Euro electronica and all through a very British filter.
With their latest project, Here Come the Rattling Trees, O’Hagan and his Llamas haven’t altered their sound much, but this time the songs are collected into a cohesive concept album of sorts. A soundtrack to a play of the same name that O’Hagan wrote and launched in 2014. This isn’t the first time he’s attempted an overarching narrative in his music. Hawaii explored, albeit in a rather abstract way, tourism and colonialism, and he’s also worked on the music for films by French director Marc Fitoussi. In fact, Rattling Trees feels a lot like the songs composed (with Stereolab’s Tim Gane) for Fitoussi’s La Vie d’Artiste, relaxed and melodic, like a day dreaming afternoon in a leafy city park.
The Rattling Trees play was about a woman named Amy, “an unsettled 28-year-old with a desire to travel”, living in the south London area of Peckham, and a small cast of characters she meets in the town square there. The play, and by extension the soundtrack, portrays the changing times in this small microcosm of England, and paint a picture of daily life there.
Looking back, pastiches of everyday British life are not uncommon in pop music, from the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” and the Kinks’ Are the Village Green Preservation Society up through XTC’s Skylarking and beyond. With the music divorced from the play’s visuals, it takes attentive listening to clue in that the High Llamas are attempting something similar here. To be fair, part of that’s due to a predominance of instrumentals. Over the course of 16 fairly short songs, only six include lyrics; most of which are non-specific. Take, for example, “Here come the rattling trees / Don’t mention my name / Don’t mention my name”, lyrics which wouldn’t be out of place in a death metal or gothic rock song.
The songs on Rattling Trees, however, are light and gentle, wistful and pensive, feathery even. Electro-acoustic chamber pop, decked out with nylon string guitars and synth murmurs, is the currency here. For a band who’s been perfecting this style for over 25 years and whose website bio proclaims they were formed “in opposition to the dull grunge obsessed UK and US orthodoxy of the early ’90s”, they’ve honed it to a masterful, if at times samey perfection. And, though the play’s main character is described as “unsettled”, there’s absolutely no tension in this music. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that, but unfortunately the songs (with the exception of the title song and “Jackie”) aren’t very memorable. Perhaps combined with the visuals they were composed for, they’d succeed more, but instead it comes off as a lesser work in the band’s catalog. Not a bad work, by any means, just not as rewarding as earlier High Llamas albums.
“Yellow is the shirt she wore / yellow like the day before,” O’Hagan sings in “Jackie”. Life in the town portrayed in Rattling Trees continues as it has, with little change, much like the High Llamas’ music. This can be comforting, but also a little dull.