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High Llamas, The
 

High Llamas, The

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Genre: pop
Rating: 4 stars ****
Title:  Can Cladders
Company: Drag City
Catalog: DC317
Year: 2007
Country/State: 
Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+
Comments: includes original lyric inner sleeve; still in shrink wrap (opened)
Available: 1
Catalog ID: 251
Price: $40.00

Best time to play: rainy Sunday mornings when you need a bit of light in your life

Occasionally I get an email complaining about something I've written. Typically it'll be a band member, band member relative, or hardcore fan berating me for something critical I've said about a song, or a beloved band. Occasionally it's someone unhappy with the asking price for an album. And then recently I got an email taking me to task for never reviewing newer bands. I was initially taken aback because I buy new music on a regular basis. Needless to say, I was surprised to discover the critic was right. Of the thousands of reviews I've put online, the vast bulk focus on '60s - '80s releases. So with that, I'll ease into newer music with an album that sounds old ...

So was 2007's "Can Cladders" The High Llamas' creative zenith ? Nope. Not by a long shot. In fact, the first couple of times I played it, I was disappointed. Sean O'Hagan crafted some excellent tunes here, but the overall effect wasn't as in-your-face appealing as some of the band's earlier releases. In fact, stretched over the thirteen songs (admittedly three of the tracks were just instrumental song fragments), the collection occasionally threatened to blend together into a forgettable aural stew. The good news was this was one of those albums that grew on you the more you played it. A song like 'Winter's Day' initially just came and went without a lot of impact, but after a couple of weeks on my turntable I found myself unexpectedly humming the song's hook which featured some of the coolest soul influenced female backing vocals you've ever heard (the Sweet Inspirations would be proud). Even more insidious was 'Rollin'. The first couple of times around it struck me as simplistic and simply dumb. And then I found myself humming the song on the way home from work ("and we say hi to the rivers and the mountains ..."). Yeah, O'Hagan wasn't about to win a Pulitzer in the lyric department, but it was so catchy !!! I know. I know. Every review draws links to Brian Wilson, but you just can't overlook the resemblance and influences. Add in a touch of '60s pop-psych influences, a dollop of Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, and a touch of mid-'60s Beatles and its a mix that I fund fascinating.

- No matter how many times I hear 'The Old Spring Town' it reminds me of a mash-up of The Free Design overdosing on Brian Wilson songs. Yeah, many folks will tell you it's a little too light and fluffy for their tastes, but I'll bet a significant number of those folks listen to it anyhow. How can you not fall in love with the glistening female harmony vocals and the Farfisa organ interludes ? Tell you what, we'll just call it a guilty pleasure and not tell anyone ... rating: **** stars
- I don't know how many folks out there will remember Emmitt Rhodes, but 'Winter's Day' was the song Rhodes always wanted to write in his dogged pursuit of Paul McCartney-styled pop perfection. Cloaked in a beautiful melody, O'Hagan seldom sounded as good and the soulful female harmony vocals (Sylvie Arthur, Winnie Asmah, Tania Degate, and Jackie Norrie), were simply too-die-for. rating: **** stars
- Anyone who doubted that earlier Free Design-meets-Brian Wilson comparison ... listen to the sweet ballad 'Sailing Bells'. Had anyone other than Sean O'Hagan come up with the tune and the arrangement, it would have been a total disaster. As is, it wasn't my favorite tune, but still captured my attention. rating: *** stars
-'Boing Backwards' was nothing more than a brief, country-tinged instrumental (banjos for goodness sake). There wasn't even enough to the song fragment to comment on. rating: ** stars
- With a weird song structure and heavily orchestrated melody, 'Honeytrap' was one of the tracks that initially left me cold, but unveiled it's charm when given chance. Very Free Design-ish in it's eccentric structure and '60s sound. rating: **** stars
- 'Bacaroo' was the first outright disappointment. The song was pretty enough, with one of those throwaway '60s pop-psych flavors (maybe something similar to a bad Association tune), but was ultimately simply dull and forgettable. In fact, the best thing here was the bass line that revealed itself at the very end of the song. rating: ** stars
- I have no idea what the song's about, but with it's breezy, MOR-ish 60s feel, it's always reminded me of something Burt Bacharach and Hal David might have written had someone spiked one of their cocktail hours. A slow, slightly acid-tinged ballad, it had some gorgeous harmony vocals, nice orchestration, a great acoustic guitar solo, and a super high hummable factor ... It also had some of the best "la la la's" in pop music. rating: **** stars
- The second instrumental song fragment, 'Something About Paper' was also the album's hardest rockin' riff. Shame they didn't finish the song. rating: *** stars
- 'Clarion Union Hall' found the band swerving back into Free Design-meets-Brian Wilson territory with an interesting, slightly discordant feel. Darn those harmony vocals were amazing. rating: **** stars
- O'Hagan's lyrics are normally a puzzle to me and that's certainly the case for The Beach Boys-styled 'Cove Cutter (Hills and Fields)'. Doctors, cures, Caribbean, treasures ... what's it all mean ? Maybe it doesn't matter given the song's beautiful melody and those cool bass voices. rating: **** stars
- I'm guessing the late jazz harp player Dorothy Ashby (seriously, I'm not making this up) was the inspiration for O'Hagan and company. That said, I guess the harp is what pushed 'Dorothy Ashby' over into the 'fey' category for me. The song is pretty enough and Rob Allum's low--tech percussion gave it a somewhat hypnotic feel, but the song's always reminded me of Andy Partridge and XTC trying to get their Beatles fixation out of their system. rating: *** stars
- As much as I fought to dislike 'Rollin'' the song's sweet, innocent disposition, wonderful melody, and dazzling vocal arrangement ultimately won over my heart and ears. One of those songs that I'll occasionally find myself humming "we said hi to the rivers and the mountains ...". rating: **** stars
- 'Summer Seen' ended the album with another instrumental song fragment ... Showcasing Dominic Murcott's vibes it could have been one of the albums best melodies, but was basically just a throwaway riff. rating: *** stars

Originally a three star LP, having played it dozens of times, I'll readily admit the album's subtle charms have captured my ears and my heart (and I have a vinyl copy).

"Can Cladders" track listing:
(side 1)
1.) The Old Spring Town (Sean O'Hagan) -
2.) Winter's Day (Sean O'Hagan) -
3.) Sailing Bells (Sean O'Hagan) -
4.) Boing Backwards (instrumental) (Sean O'Hagan) -
5.) Honeytrap (Sean O'Hagan) -
6.) Bacaroo (Sean O'Hagan) -

(side 2)
1.) Can Cladders (Sean O'Hagan) -
2.) Something About Paper (instrumental) (Sean O'Hagan) -
3.) Clarion Union Hall (Sean O'Hagan) -
4.) Cove Cutter (Hills and Fields) (Sean O'Hagan) -
5.) Dorothy Ashby (Sean O'Hagan) -
6.) Rollin' (Sean O'Hagan) -
7.) Summer Seen (instrumental) (Sean O'Hagan) -

And yes, The High Llamas have a web presence at: http://www.highllamas.com/index.aspx
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