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CD Review



High Llamas - Can Cladders
Drag City
        Though the High Llamas are definitely a group, the undisputed leader and visionary of the band is singer/guitarist Sean O'Hagan. It is O'Hagan guiding and producing every fragment of sound on these CDs. Even though he may not be playing every note, his production/songwriting/arranging hand guides the rest of his band and the small army of additonal musicians he uses to flesh out the sound of his spawling songs.
        And what a sound.
        Often compared to pop auteur Brian Wilson's late '60's/early '70's Beach Boys work due to the use of sweet, stacked harmonies; elaborate orchestrations; sophisticated melodies; and keyboard-driven sounds High Llamas also brings to mind the well-heeled pop of Burt Bacharach. While some may think of elevator music when listening to this elegant pop, the pure genius of all the subleties and elements weaved throughout the mix make it much, much more than mere Muzak. Sometimes it sounds like a virtual cast of thousands on each song the sound is so expansive. Can it be called too derivative to Wilson and Bacharach? Sure, maybe. But with all the comparisons thrown around to various artists about how they take elements of Wilson here and maybe Bacharach there, doesn't the fact O'Hagan pretty much does it better than anyone else validate his music? It should. To hear this and experience the depth and nuance of each tune is to know O'Hagan is a genius of orchestrated pop. Not to mention a healthy dollop of Steely Dan slickness. If he had been producing music in the '60's with a band of like minded souls, say The Free Design or The Association, he would be a legend by now.
        In the early '80's O'Hagan was a founding member of the London band Microdisney with Cathal Coughlan (who later went on to lead the band Fatima Mansions) and, following the break-up of that band in 1988, went on to record a few UK only solo albums before forming High Llamas. With the release of their first album, Gideon Gaye, in 1994, the band immediately started drawing accolades. By the time the album was released in the States, however, the buzz had faded and the album was pretty much just dumped here without any promotion whatsoever. Luckily, with subsequent albums The High Llamas began to build a solid fanbase appreciating the band's aural tapestry of well-woven elements and carefully concieved pop. Their previous album, 2002's Beet, Maize and Corn, was a chamber-pop masterpiece which eliminated the basic rock band instrumentation of guitars, bass and drums in favor of classical guitar, strings and horns and was a high-water mark for the group.
        This album can be called their crowning achievement for one reason: it takes the best of the various soundscapes of their previous albums and puts them all into the mix here. The warm mechanicalness of Cold & Bouncy, the chamber pop of Beet, Maize and Corn, Gideon Gaye's Brit-pop sounds, and Hawaii's Beach Baroque are all brought together for the coup de grace that is this CD. From the first cut to the last are catchy songs filled with some of the best pop productions ever created. To hold O'Hagan in the same esteem as the other legendary figures mentioned is a no-brainer after listening to this CD. To single out one song is impossible. They are all little masterpieces in and of themselves, the love and attention lavished on them by O'Hagan is immeasurable.  
        Fans of '60's pop are the most likely to groove on this disc although, as usual, the High Llamas mix plenty of dance and house sounds into their songs. This is music to chill to on a Sunday morning or afternoon. You just can't be in a bad mood when listening to this. The music simply makes you smile too much to keep the bad mood going. While it may be too sweet for some, I would suggest to those people that they lighten up and maybe if they weren't such miserable fucks they might enjoy the cool music too. Seriously, the only people who can't get into this album or High Llamas music as a whole is because they're sad bastards. Believe it. And pick up the album lest you become a sad bastard yourself. - Scott Homewood



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