It's tempting to title a High Llamas review something like "If it ain't
Baroque, don't mix it." Full of ornate arrangements and meticulous production,
Sean O'Hagan and company have attached their heartstrings to the Beach
Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) and follow every tug.
In his work with Stereolab, O'Hagan has proved a natural collaborator.
His string-and-brass arrangements flowed effortlessly through their
Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996) and his brass charts can still be
heard on their 1999 record, Cobra and Phases blah blah blah, (it's
a long freaking title). More importantly, though, his influence has really
rubbed off on the 'Lab, so much so that at times it was hard to tell the
difference between their Dots and Loops (1997) and the Llamas'
Cold and Bouncy (1998).
In between records, O'Hagan spent a good deal of time at the mixing console,
doing work for Mouse on Mars, Cornelius, Stock Hausen & Walkman, and
Schneider TM among others. Many of them returned the favor and lent a
hand to the Llama's remix EP, Lollo Rosso (1998).
This time around, O'Hagan's elected to take a more organic approach.
Snowbug reaches back towards the Llamas' Hawaii (1997) for
a band-oriented sound, and the band distances itself a little bit from
the more machined sound of Cold and Bouncy. All the regular
watermarks are here: almost-floral instrumentation, O'Hagan's thin but
pleasant tenor, his wistful, pretty-pretty melodies.
Does it sound as if the High Llamas are an acquired taste? Definitely.
This is pop music at its wimpiest, and it could definitely be played in
the salon where your grandmother gets her hair done. It's not without its
charms, though. The chorus of "Bach Ze" (RealAudio
excerpt) has a rumbling vibe line; Stereolab's Mary Hanson and
Laetitia Sadier's vocals on "Cookie Bay" (RealAudio
excerpt) make the track a highlight.
For those looking for a heady musical experience and who don't mind their
tunes a little, well, lulling, the High Llamas may be for you. It's warmer
and more approachable than Cold and Bouncy, and less sprawling
than Hawaii; O'Hagan and company have crafted a melodic, coherent
record in Snowbug. It's on the opposite end of the spectrum from,
say, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral (1994), but then isn't
that what spectra are for?