Eight Miles High

A Pilgrimage to Pleasant: Sean O'Hagen (center) channels Brian Wilson's California dream on the High Llamas'

The typical High Llamas song is at once formulaic and nebulous. Our lead instrument might be a supple banjo. Or maybe a supple harpsichord. Or an array of a dozen English-music-hall-ready devices--from the upright piano to the clavinet harpsichord--all played very...supplely. We are repeatedly lathered with brass and toweled off with Woolite-fresh strings. A tingly yet pacifying sensation sets in. Our rhythm feels like cotton, almost dainty. It saunters--no, waltzes--no, cavorts. That's it, cavorts--like tippytoes on tiny bubbles, but nothing goes pop.

Our singer and lead Llama, 37-year-old Sean O'Hagen (formerly of Stereolab), sings for us in a voice so fleeting and insubstantial that it makes Nick Drake's falsetto hit like Floyd Patterson's left jab. His comely little lyrics offer nifty images: "Standing in the lightweight suit/reports from the location shoot/It seems like a period piece/it could be Spain, it could be Greece." But while his lyrics try to ground us in a confectionery abstraction, they can't quite manage to say anything before the band's elegance hits a different thematic runway and we're lifting off again for another orchestral Neverland.

The song referred to above is called "Nomads," and it appears on the High Llamas' descriptively titled 1997 debut Hawaii (V2) along with 19 other downright luscious pop suites. It's a sonically expansive record, but its thematic substance is far more remote. "Let's rebuild the past/cuz the future won't last," O'Hagen sings on a cool little tune called "The Hot Revivalist," setting his sentiment against a Pet Sounds-worthy "ba ba ba" vocal backdrop. Yet, our theoretical Llama listener is probably about 24 years old, and one has to wonder exactly which version of the past he or she might be interested in reviving.

Though Hawaii is musically intoxicating, arbiters of cool cant have frequently embraced it for cultural reasons. Fetishizing its nonrocking sense of style, hipsters have placed it into a whole new neo-canon of nonrock stylists as diverse as Patsy Cline, Burt Bacharach, and Dusty Springfield. Rock critics see it as another possible relief from post-grunge nihilism. And though I have yet to play it for my Yanni-loving moms, she'll probably love it too. And she'll love for the most obvious reason, the pure, musical reason: It's easy--with a few EEs and a bunch of ZZZZZs. Easy, like Sunday morn.

Sean O'Hagen's totem records--his V.U. "Sunday Morning" so to speak--come from like-minded studio-craft legends. His arrangements suggest Brian Wilson at his beachiest and Van Dyke Parks at his most whimsical. O'Hagen's obviously studied and restudied Parks's sunny-day collaboration with Wilson, Orange Crate Art (1995), although Hawaii is a lighter, prettier record. Yet, O'Hagen's music and lyrics self-consciously abjure both Wilson's bipolar melodrama and Parks's amicable Randy Newman-esque Americynicism (not unlike that of Randy Newman). This is a Pathos Free Zone: It never rains in Llama, California.

Hawaii opens with the lolling line, "Take care to avoid the heady stuff." The sentiment overflows with significance for O' Hagen. In his former life, playing with electronics and string 'n' brass arrangements in the Marxist pop band Stereolab, he helped lighten the load for one of the most heavily theoretical rock oeuvres of all time. Note to Stereoheads: See his horn charts on "Ping Pong," the band's college-radio "MMMBop." Or hear how his Farfisa organ makes meta-nookie with Frenchie singer Laetitia Sadier above the Kraut-rock din of their excellent 1993 album, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements.

The only thing O' Hagen's brought from 'Lab to Llamas is the percolating electronics. They buffer Hawaii's filmic song-to-song segues, and also predominate on the newly released Llamas album, Cold and Bouncy. While Bouncy shines on the surface, before you notice it's faded into a kind of aural wallpaper. A new batch of Wilsonian compositions turns Hawaii's cool cavort to a mirthless meander. Relentlessly cutesy lyrics lose enticing sweet-nothings in a parade of opaque, ultimately empty un-imagery. If the Llamas' debut showcased the glee that comes when pretentious people realize they've stumbled upon something that might be smart and beautiful, then Cold and Bouncy reeks of murky technicism. It's no small wonder that its only musical conceit is electronics.

In fact, Bouncy is aimless enough to frame the entire Llamas project as a heartlessly conceived experiment. Like a lot of current hip pop and dance music it places sound+theory above love+sound. Llamaland lacks a center. Not lacks a center in the flaky French theory sense. Or even in the "I looked into the eyes of Norm Coleman" sense. No, the truth is really simpler than that. Sort of an "I bit into this eclair and there's no creamy filling, I want my money back" kind of sense. There's nothing worse than music that gives you every sound you could ever want, and says nothing you could ever use. It's like that line in the Townes Van Zandt song: "Heaven ain't bad but you don't get nothing done."

 
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