Music  |  Features

The High Llamas

Sit Up & Listen

February 5, 2004  |  12:00am
The High Llamas

One week prior to the release of The High Llama’s newest record, Beet, Maize & Corn, head Llama Sean O’Hagan has done the “not-so-eloquent British press” (his words) a favor: written their review for them.

“‘More lounge-inspired, wistful musings from the Beach-Boys-obsessed High Llamas.’ Something like that, that’s what they usually come up with. It’s like they hit F5 on the computer and that’s what comes up. And I’ll tell you: the reason why they do that is because a lot of people who write aren’t actually music fans. They want to write, they want to be involved in celebrity journalism, they want to be involved, they want to be on the scene. But actually having to sit down and listen to the record? ‘Um, I’m not sure about that, there’s a party to go to.’”

O’Hagan has plenty of precedent to justify his disquiet. Reading through the band’s press kit, you quickly get the impression that music journalists, on both sides of the Atlantic, are getting paid, not by the word, but by how many Brian Wilson comparisons they can cram into whatever space has been allotted for their article. And while O’Hagan’s baroque-pop influences are undeniably apparent in his newest batch of tunes—the elaborate arrangements, careful attention to melody, tasteful strings, loose brass and layered harmonies—Beet, Maize & Corn is being irrigated by water from a much deeper well.

“As a songwriter, someone who charts melody—which is what I love doing, finding chords and charting melodies—I wanted to go to the source. And the source is actually—for modern 20th-Century songwriting—Delius and Ravel, British and French impressionism, which even informed American songwriting. … Those people actually did inform all the artists that we sort of feed on.”

From the trotting cadence and fluttering string arrangement of “The Click And The Fizz” to the refreshingly sparse instrumentation—voice, tambourine, lightly plucked nylon-string guitar and occasional string/horn punctuation—of “Rotary Hop,” The High Llamas have taken a sizable leap forward by taking an equally sizable leap backward in terms of the sonic palette implemented. And the most obvious sign of that departure is the new record’s conspicuous lack of electronic seasoning, a fixture of 2000’s Buzzle Bee.

“I’m really worried about making records that don’t challenge what I’ve done before. I don’t think Buzzle Bee was trotted out, but I do feel that if I did another Buzzle Bee, it would be trotted out. … Those sounds no longer make you sit up and listen.” O’Hagan goes on to explain that electronic music in the UK has been assimilated to the point that, in order to hear the most cutting-edge work being done in the genre, all you have to do is turn on your television set and wait for the commercials.

“I don’t want to get into the area of saying, ‘If it’s crowded in the kitchen, get out,’ but I do make records to try and explore slightly different areas … I think there’s far too much consensus in the way people make music. I think [artists] should listen back, or listen widely—or whatever—and really try to find their own voices.” O’Hagan’s spent the last three years since Buzzle Bee trying to take his own advice, immersing himself in the work of such spiritual mentors as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Alan Copeland, Charles Ives, Carla Bley, Jack Nitzsche, Frankie Avalon, and Stephen Foster.

With Beet, Maize & Corn—as well as the double-disc, Retrospective, Rarities and Instrumentals, released earlier this year on V2—O’Hagan proves he’s capable of penning timeless pop that’ll be remembered by next century’s crop of lettered songwriters.

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