Thursday, April 14, 2011

THE HIGH LLAMAS "Talahomi Way"

Hard to credit that The High Llamas have been releasing records, albeit with spacious intervals, for 21 years (a Microdisney reference now might sound like delving into antediluvian history). I last checked in with them at the end of the 90s so have missed out on the last decade when Sean O’Hagan’s band of chamber-pop stylists have been releasing records every 3-4 years via Drag City. Listening to the latest record ‘Talahomi Way’, on the face of it nothing much has changed: elegant, mainly instrumental lounge-pop, with flawless arrangements and with a great big nod to the shimmering late period Beach Boys with a hint of Sergio Mendes. However listen intently – which you should - and there are very subtle but noticeable re-calibrations. They may not be seismic changes but they underscore that casual pigeon-holing of The High Llamas is best avoided.

‘Berry Adams’ with its wistful, carefree pace opens and sets the tone for the album, conveying a blue-skies reassurance with its gliding strings, elegant harmonies and harpsichord. However as the layers fall away at its end, revealed is the very gentlest of motorik rhythms underpinning the track (long-time collaborator Tim Gane of Stereolab produces). The album’s predominant palette is warm but pristine sounds exquisitely wrung from chamber instruments; see second track ‘Wander Jack Wander’ with its tinkling marimba, the softest parps of trumpet and silky strings. It is so restrained in its elegance the effect is almost soporific. ‘Woven and Rolled’ with its references to The Riveria and London hints at jet-setting travel but is delivered at a tranquil ocean liner cruise pace. ‘Fly Baby Fly’ is more animated, pointing firmly to the pop-classicism of Jimmy Webb or Burt Bacharach. As the cover art illustration suggests, this is gilt-framed art-pop exotica, despite the electronic detail at the edges.

What surprises me however and which feels very different from the 90s High Llama recordings is the level of abstraction. ‘Ring of Gold’ has the most vocal content but it is so softly sung it is not just hushed but almost withdrawn, as though it was desperately trying not to draw attention to itself. The song finishes with a repeating string pattern that is much more dominant than the vocals ever were, as though they were a background prelude to this hint of contemporary classical minimalism. The character of Berry is referred to beyond the titular opening song which suggests some form of narrative or travelogue but nothing it is explicit; it’s like a concept album in which the concept has been faded out. And ‘Take My Hand’ relishes the sand, breeze and ocean spray in an almost conventional manner but the persistent repetition of that key phrase becomes less like a chorus and more like a looped sample in which meaning fades into pure mood and effect.

If 1996’s ‘Hawaii’ referred to a real place, ‘Talahomi Way’ appears to be fictional. The former had a more vibrant, electric buzz to it, the latter shifts to finely sculptured organic textures that can be almost dream-like. What could be dismissed as muzak has an enigmatic depth and graceful virtuosity that is not ambient music but sometimes feels as though it wishes it were. ‘Talahomi Way’ never feels arch or wry but I suspect some will find it deeply conservative or dismiss it off-hand as retro-fitted lounge. Others will hear and prize an almost experimental subverting of these bachelor pad transmissions.

FLY, BABY FLY (via Drag City)
The High Llamas
Talahomi Way [BUY]

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