Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

The High Llamas

Released 1996 on Alpaca Park/Sony
Reviewed by Bov, 06/12/2000ce

The High Llamas are one of those bands who will never be famous. They will also probably never better their finest works to date, but for a while they were making some of the most gorgeous and sunlit music I've ever heard.
I was first introduced to the Llamas in 1996, and Hawaii became the lazy sun-soaked soundtrack to my summer.

It's the follow-up and big brother to their 1994 album, "Gideon Gaye" which, as well as spawning the almost-hit of "Checking-in, Checking-out", was where they first began to toy with experimentation after the Lightening-Seeds-on-acid pop of first album "Santa Barbara".

On first hearing Hawaii, my initial reaction was to write them off as Pet Sounds era Beach Boys impersonators. Their sound is taken straight from Brian Wilson's pre-completely-mad brain of the mid sixties and comes complete with sleighbells, organs, and lush multi-tracked harmonies. However, it didn't take me long to realise that beneath the shameless Brian-ness lurked a vastly beautiful record.

Lead singer and songwriter Sean O'Hagen (ex of obscure 80s outfit Microdisney) had taken the sound of several drugged-up Wilsons, mixed in extra doses of sun loungers and brightly coloured cocktails laced with weed, and created something wholly his own.
After all, how many bands have been compared with the Beatles? What's so wrong about one flirting with Beach Boys comparisons?

Hawaii is a huge album.
It's seventy minutes plus of a long hot lazy summer that never ended, captured in a glass globe to be put on the shelf and stared deeply into on a grey and dreary day, or to be revelled in and celebrated on a hot and sunny one.
No fewer than 29 tracks merge seamlessly into and out of one another, with musical themes and lyrics cropping up again and again throughout it's length.

The vibrating analogue synths and simple, scene setting strings of opener "Cuckoo Casino" are quickly over, and in a flurry of bubbling synth, the banjo riff of "Sparkle Up" is plucked, and with the smooth brushing of drums, in come the lilting strings proper, and a simply lovely instrumental track unfolds complete with slight suggestions of James Bond theme music in some of the chord changes. You are wondering when the vocals are going to start, although at the moment you don't really care where they've got to.

You are being gently immersed into this strange world, and it's a little while before the music fades into the distance and, in another flurry of wobbling synth, the relaxed, yet jaunty harpsichords of the third track begin.
Then Sean O'Hagen opens his mouth to sing. Does he sing about broken teenage relationships? Does he sing about politics? Does he sing about surfing?

To the lilting strings and brass he sings: "Take care to avoid the heavy stuff / I give up this literature is fluff / trawled through sketches of notes the night before / chased the baffled employees floor to floor / hung a do not disturb on glass swing doors...."

It's complete nonsense. But it's a wonderfully perplexing nonsense.

The end of "Literature is Fluff" starts to become swamped by a steadily building sound of slightly distorted and resonating organ noise which threatens to disturb the peaceful flow of things, until JUST before it gets to the exact level of annoying, and as the first worried punters are starting to eye the speakers suspiciously, it breaks and in a split second the bouncy banjos of "Nomads" are plunking away as if nothing ever happened. It's a very effective trick that the Llamas would go on to use time and time again on future albums.

"Nomads" is a simply wonderful track. Innocent pianos plonk away on-the-one, acoustic guitars strum lazily away, tambourines shake steadily, the strings hang in the air just over the crown of your head, and a lone trombone oom-pa-pas away without a care in the world while O'Hagen repeats the meaningless chorus "This is what the nomads did / this is what the nomads did / this is how they fed the kids / this is what the nomads did....."
It's one of those choruses where you can't help but feel immense jealousy for the singer. It just begs you to sing along with it, and carry on singing along with it for the rest of the year as you're strolling down roads, doing the washing up, cycling across the hillsides etc etc.

And so it continues. Track after track peel off effortlessly. Some are proper songs, some are instrumental sketches, some are short snatches of other-worldly electronica, some are echoes of earlier or later tracks, all are beautiful.

Although O'Hagen's lyrics are largely nonsense, they convey a strange kind of sunny, yet unspeaking pathos and stillness. It's world where bizarre and often flustered characters go about their daily business and no-one really has the time to have a cross thought about anyone else.
It's a world of "community groups in their ill-fitting suits", of botched amateur theatre productions, of piled-up junk and glorious old camper vans and aeroplanes, of island people and reluctantly-turning tides.
There is something oddly sad, though, about some of the snatches of lyrics: "The gothic stadium built in half a day / painted grey / where the trenches lay", "Let's rebuild the past / 'cos the future won't last", "spoke a language of love / then all the luck ran dry".

It's one of my all-time favourite albums without doubt. It works great as background music, and played loud it blows your soul away. It's ridiculously easy to get most people into the Llamas, and I've already converted a good few.

It's just a shame that they haven't been able to come close to repeating the standard since. The follow-up, "Cold and Bouncy", although great, ventured further into electronica at the expense of the melodies, then "Snowbug" proved to be a merely adequate treading of water, and the new record, Buzzle Bee is a furiously disappointing record of little substance and could almost be a soundtrack to the Teletubbies.
Interested parties are, however, highly encouraged to seek out "Lollo Rosso", a collection of remixes of material from "Cold and Bouncy" by the likes of Mouse on Mars and Cornelius.

Maybe the Llamas will return to the summer again one day, but it doesn't really matter if they never do - it's already been captured so perfectly in Hawaii.

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