The High Llamas' Sweet Harvest

By now Sean O’ Hagan must be tired of music critics writing about him having a Brian Wilson/Pet Sounds fixation (I just did it too), so on the latest High Llamas album O’Hagan de-emphasizes the Wilsonian percussion and electronica in favor of “acoustica.” The sense of floating, of well being, of whimsy that his other albums exude ensues though, and what he’s ended up with here is 21st Century chamber music that resembles Brian Wilson less and Van Dyke Parks more (one of the tunes offers “…a toast to V.D.P.").

But that’s being flip. O’ Hagan’s operating in Wilson/Parks/Burt Bacharach territory here, but on a far more intimate scale. His arranging chops have grown enormously and he paints his acoustic colors with the skill of the great musical impressionists, though he’s working with a more restricted palette.

Utilizing a string section, some brass, a banjo, acoustic guitars, piano, synth and his “go-to” instrument, the marimba, O’ Hagan creates delicate, spacious, almost sugary three-dimensional soundscapes that invite the listener into a whimsical, imaginary world that for many will be a welcome respite from the real one.

Southern California has faded from O’ Hagan’s vista, replaced by a vaguely French landscape that floats by effortlessly on deliberate bubbles of sound. The enigmatic lyrics sung by O’Hagan lead you by the hand into his comforting, sometimes childlike, impressionistic world.

Precious? Yes, and compared to some of his previous efforts, less memorable. For some this will be too precious by lots, but for others, O’Hagan’s comfort zone will be just what the musical doctor ordered aided by absolutely spectacular natural sound. This is a wonderfully transparent recording of acoustic instruments, mixed and equalized to perfection. O’Hagan dedicates the record to his friend, collaborator and member of Stereolab the late Mary Hansen who died in a cycling accident last year.

A musical trifle? Sonic sorbet? Perhaps, but one that will surely please musically and sonically.

My favorite Llamas album is 1996’s Hawaii (Alpaca Park/Sony CD/2 LPs), and I saw the group play delicate selections live, backed by a string quartet at a CMJ showcase at a crowded N.Y.C. bar. The kids ate it up and if you’re not familiar with O’Hagan’s work, so might you. This disc, licensed from the Duophonic Super 45s label and issued domestically by Drag City isn’t a bad place to start. You’ll love the sound, no matter what you think of the music.