|Photo by Bleddyn Butcher|
One of the hazards of writing about music for a living is the temptation to forgo the writing at all, ’cause you’ve found yourself completely lost in the pleasures of listening to the subject at hand. When the subject is the High Llamas, the problem becomes very acute indeed. For sheer aural pleasure, and I mean the ruthlessly addictive kind, the High Llamas are the kings of the hill, have been for some time now and, with the release of Beet, Maize & Corn (Drag City) in late 2003, remain the unchallenged champs of music for listening to — and not writing about.
In fact, I’ve returned now after tackling that first paragraph, which I must say I struggled with, so eager was I to get to the next track on Beet. I took a short refreshing break to dig into, for the dozenth time (yes, you’ll want to), “The Click and the Fizz,” a typically High Llamsian affair that on initial meeting twinges the ear and tickles the memory banks with a yearning sweetness blowing in on a breeze of unusually admixed instruments and harmonies. But that’s on first hearing; the first listen brings other listens in rapid succession, there’ll be this nagging sensation, eventually becoming a severe hounding at your psyche . . . your heart, anyway.
Built around deftly chorded piano or acoustic guitar motifs and augmented by exceedingly tasteful string ensembles, vibes, banjos, horns and winds, head High Llama Sean O’Hagan’s songs are in actuality small pop chamber works, simple enough in appeal yet concerning themselves with a large number of “formal” musical elements that draw from a vast and, more to the point, astutely juxtaposed array of sources. The lyrics? They’re not designed to make you feel stupid, exactly, but you’d be hard-pressed to pin down what O’Hagan is on about at any given time. An impressionist, he paints open views of scenes he likes, moods he feels, doing so with an ear for musical cadence and cascade. Especially intriguing is the combination of his heartbreaking harmonies with the oblique strands of his words, which creates a very special, yes, magical place, which is yours and yours alone. (There’s a dreaminess to much or most of what this English band does, and that must be why there’s a tinge of melancholy about it, too; it seems to recognize that while one daydreams, one’s life is slowly slipping away.)
Back in the ’80s O’Hagan was a member of the Irish agit-punk melodists Microdisney, along with Cathal Coughlan, who went on to form the even more aggro Fatima Mansions. O’Hagan’s diverging interests in Bacharach, the Beach Boys, Morricone and Mancini, among other extremely non-hardcore-type inspirations, found him stirring the pot alone in the studio, brewing a lot of very non-punk-rock ideas that eventually led to the forming of High Llamas. Several albums through the ’90s, such as the West Coast pop-soaked Gideon Gaye and Hawaii, found him often (shortsightedly, I think) accused of attempting to rewrite the Beach Boys post–Pet Sounds songbook. High Llamas fan Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, however, was so taken with the epic sweep of Hawaii that he asked O’Hagan to produce the first new B. Boys album with Brian Wilson in several years. (Meetings were held, Mike Love made a stink, O’Hagan said no thank you.) Further albums, such as the cruelly undervalued Snow Bug, found O’Hagan incorporating very subtle electronic elements in with his vibes, trombones, banjos and guitars. Snow Bug’s insanely upbeat “Janet Jangle” is like the theme for an afternoon talk show with actually interesting guests.
Beet, Maize & Corn is wonderful. Wonderful for the way it shows O’Hagan’s compositions evolving so masterfully, wonderful for his increasingly awesome arranging prowess — albeit here done much more sparely and sans the electronics. Beet is the band’s most quietly complex album to date, yet feels like the most easily accessible. The ornamenting blends of instrumentation are perhaps not so unusual anymore — banjos and vibes over tack piano and nylon guitar, trombones loafing about in the distance — but O’Hagan’s painterly placing of the instruments has reached an acute degree of genius.
In lesser hands, something like O’Hagan’s stuff would veer off into the saccharine. Yet this music, often referred to as an oasis, or “a safe place” (and I don’t mind saying it again), soothes and stimulates in a way that seems to defy our biases about what might superficially be thought of as elevator music. I’m fascinated by his use of broad-stepping, adventurous melody over superwide yet carefully stippled harmonies, and the best chord progressions in all of pop music, seriously. (Further evidence of which can also be found on High Llamas’ recent Retrospective, Rarities & Instrumentals, a double-disc package on the V2 label that culls material from their first five albums as well as B-sides and remixes.) On Beet, O’Hagan looked to the warm recorded sound of ’50s doo-wop and R&B sides, and further studied the work of early 20th-century classical composers such as Delius and Britten. Over the phone recently we talked about other sources, all of whom were “a few people trying to extend harmonies in pop music.” Names like jazz reinventors Carla Bley and George Russell popped up, as did ’70s English pop ironists Stackridge, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and O’Hagan’s revered Robert Wyatt; he mentions the obvious inspiration of the Brazilian composers of the ’60s and ’70s. Interesting to note that the tropicalistas of Brazil proudly proclaimed their “cannibalism” of music from Europe and America; O’Hagan freely admits that there was a bit of contriving on Beet, where he rubbed the music of different eras and nationalities together to see what kind of friction he got, much like, say, Debussy had done long before him — and often improving upon the source material.
Tellingly, O’Hagan said that, as a lad, it was The Twilight Zone that rocked his world, because of its power to put him in a very strange place for half an hour once a week. It’s this evocative sense of place — one that you might’ve got especially well in the past from hissy old monophonic records tracked on analog reel-to-reels — that makes the High Llamas a most rarefied listening experience. That place is aided by the painterly work of one Fulton Dingley, by the way, the finest audio engineer ever to draw blade against tape. Or, he would have if O’Hagan had the chance: “We want to spend time and make records in the big 24-track studios,” O’Hagan says, “but we can’t afford it. I absolutely would record with tape any day, any time, but the luxury of recording that way is kind of disappearing.”
Today’s dissonance becomes tomorrow’s consonance, that’s what “they” say. O’Hagan is a self-taught musician, but a real student of music. It’s been a huge advantage in his case — just listen to these fresh ears he’s got, reel backward at his why-not approaches to the organization of pop history’s sounds in ways that just aren’t normally done. Enjoy your solitude in this special place he’s created just for you. O’Hagan’s super-expanding of harmonic and melodic content within the pop context is, without exaggeration, a major contribution to the pop canon, and by a bit of extension, to a much better world in which to live.
The classic High Llamas lineup — O’Hagan, drummer Rob Allum, bassist Jon Fell and multi-instrumentalist Marcus Holdaway — performs at the Troubadour on Saturday, March 6.