October 05, 2003

High Llamas "Beet, Maize and Corn"

In life, certain things are a given. For instance, it's going to be warm and sunny in the summer. Occasionally, it's going to rain. Winter can often be cool, cold, or very cold. Night is broken by sunrise. You and I know these things are going to happen; we trust that they will. It's simple, really, these things that we take for granted. I mean, don't we expect certain things to follow a natural pattern? Don't we get up every morning, expecting some form of routine that we're comfortable with?

Like Mother Nature, High Llamas records are often quite reliable in their consistency. Without even listening to a new Llamas record, I can expect a few things to happen: vocal harmonies that could melt butter, backed by a wall-of-sound horn section that fill in the background, with more than a few little quirky moments here and there--such as sound effects, banjo and harmonium--all thrown together in an arrangement that would easily make Brian and Carl Wilson and Burt Bacharach jealous. If you've heard one High Llamas record, you already know the formula. Even though it's somewhat predictable, it's still a wonderful formula.

In that regard, the High Llamas' first album in three years, Beet, Maize and Corn isn't that different from Buzzle Bee, Cold and Bouncy or Gideon Gaye. It's not that their overall sound has changed; instead of a major growth spurt, the High Llamas have matured, and main Llama Sean O'Hagen has refined the sound. One of the major complaints about previous High Llamas albums has been their length. Great ideas would often be smothered by an abundance of too much of everything; often, their albums would run well over an hour, with more than fifteen songs per album. That's just too much; good ideas easily get lost in such a quagmire, and no matter how great your band sounds, too much of a good thing is still too much.

Not so with Beet, Maize and Corn. A lot of the Smile sounds are gone--he's moved on to Friends and 20/20 now, but really--when you write songs as pretty and as nice as "The Click and the Fizz," "The Holly Hills," or "The Walworth River," who really cares who their inspirations are? Interestingly enough, I don't really hear much Beach Boys this time around--but, in an interesting twist, I do hear hints and reminders of O'Hagen's pals, Stereolab. Listen to "Rotary Hop" and "Leaf and Lime" and I bet you'll think that Laetitia should be singing on them. Such a development is to be expected, really--as is the fact that, for the first time on any High Llamas, they don't overindulge in epic songs that last over five minutes. Beet, Maize & Corn is the album that you wished other High Llamas albums had been edited down to.

There is a lesson to be learned from the High Llamas--a great sound can be worked to death if you don't edit yourself. Previous High Llamas records were great records that were twenty-five minutes too long, but Beet, Maize and Corn finally gets it right. Twelve tracks, forty minutes--and they don't waste a second of it. While it might not be a particularly new sounding record (you could argue that none of their records actually sound new), but as these things go, the maturity level and the refinement of O'Hagen's obsession clearly makes this album a winner. It's good to know that the 'comeback' after a few years of silence is a winner. Here's hoping for more refinement the next time around, because in these turbulent times, we do need High Llamas' style of breezy pop.

--Joseph Kyle

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