Sharps & Flats

Why the High Llamas are more than just another workingman's Beach Boys.

Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Few bands approach the conventions of song with as much reverence and faithful earnestness as the High Llamas. Their eight-year search for the divine chord progression has always rung with a certain air of nobility, summoning the courtly manner of majestic madrigals, the more baroque outings of Brian Wilson and even George Gershwin.

For the High Llamas, music is a gilded artifact to be venerated for its most elemental qualities -- harmony and melody. These are self-evident means to a musical end, but in the hands of such deliberate artisans, harmony and melody serve more as finishing tools than hammers and nails. If Phil Spector was building from the ground a wall of sound, the High Llamas are hard at work fashioning its decorative molding.

"Snowbug" shows the Llamas servicing much the same style they've plied since their beginnings in 1991. But whether by sheer force of time or some tick of measurable progress, it has become harder to cast off the group as just placeholders in the long line of Beach Boys fetishists. (The band's mastermind, Sean O'Hagan, was once approached to work with Brian Wilson on a since-aborted project.)

Like Stereolab, a like-minded band O'Hagan often works with, the Llamas bear the weight of very pronounced influences ranging from '60s-bent troubadours to cocktail-swilling proto-electronicists. But after five albums, the Llamas have proved more indebted to their heroes' obsession with craft than to their particular sounds.

The album's first track, "Bach Ze," speaks for both the band's exacting nature and its almost quaint futuristic drive. The chorus -- "From moon to Mars the sliders slip/But now we rarely make the trip" -- rises over whispered acoustic guitar, stately strings and electronic teasers, mourning a musical and verbal image of a '60s-era studio producer poring over his mixing board. The band's backward gaze becomes a bit less explicit as it traipses along -- as the lyrics to "Harpers Romo" tell it, "Shutters come down, safety inside/Exile at home, this is more than just a place where we hide" -- but a eulogistic glance at the past is never too far from view.

As it plays on, "Snowbug," like all of the Llamas' work, is mostly a meditation on a small handful of closely related melodic themes. Those melodies are always stunning, though, as crafted by a band graced with the hands of musicians and the ears of producers.

O'Hagan's electronic tinkering is less pronounced than it was on 1998's "Cold and Bouncy" (which was both), but still decorates the more earthbound sounds of strings, flutes, horns and bells, as well as the warm bath poured by the band's extensive collection of analog synthesizers. Such expansive instrumentation only adds to a core tunefulness that saturates each and every chord, as well as the elision of chords and even the silent spaces between them.

The album's crystalline production and understated mid-tempo gait make it a near Adult Contemporary exercise in musical pleasantry, but the studied sweep of its craftsmanship clearly has other, more ambitious designs. The High Llamas ponder and dwell over their every musical move, but instead of producing overbearingly ponderous and dwelling music, they breeze along in the confident air of solid craftsmanship.

By Andy Battaglia

Andy Battaglia is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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