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The High Llamas' Snowbug

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
The High Llamas

There's really only so much of Brian Wilson's and Burt Bacharach's musical aesthetics a musician can appropriate before becoming a complete fool to nostalgia. For 10 years, Sean O'Hagan has been borrowing, retooling, and deriving inspiration from those granddaddies of epic songwriting. And if there's concern that his band, the High Llamas, has been treading dangerously close to cliché, its fifth album, Snowbug, realizes some of those fears.

As they have on past releases such as 1996's Hawaii or last year's Cold and Bouncy, the High Llamas spunkily subvert orchestration and too-pretty melodies, employing just enough random electronic noodling, organ ostinato, and colorful lap-steel guitar ditties to keep the band's music well on the experimental side of easy listening. But while it's certainly beautiful and well-crafted, Snowbug is more complacent and less musically challenging than those previous efforts, though ironically some tracks were the result of impromptu jam sessions in the studio. The opening track, "Back Ze," a quiet composition of delicate guitar arpeggios and lilting violins, typifies the record's idyllic nature. Indeed, Snowbug is exceedingly pleasant.

If Snowbug is a little too mild-mannered, it's only because we've come to expect more provocative aural assertions from O'Hagan, the maestro innovator who regularly collaborates with the likes of Jim O'Rourke, Tortoise, and Stereolab. And there are interesting musical motifs on Snowbug, from the prevalence of Brazilian percussion to the emphasis on xylophones, which lends an airy, tropical feel to the record. The shimmering Latin percussion of "Hoops Hooley" and the feisty steel drums of "Daltons Star" illustrate the tropicalia influence on O'Hagan's more recent musical efforts, while on "Cookie Bay," a collaboration with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen, and the more upbeat and memorable "Go to Montecito," the group returns temporarily to its archetypal style of layered, genre-tweaking sounds. The High Llamas are beloved for producing engaging, off-the-wall lounge-pop. The kinder, gentler sound of Snowbug continues along that musical trajectory in an enjoyable if less-riveting fashion.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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