For more than a decade, Sean O’Hagan, with the High Llamas, has made a career out of reveling in ’60s-style symphonic pop in the vein of Burt Bacharach, Van Dyke Parks and Pet Sounds. At times culminating in lengthy orch-pop epics like Hawaii, electro Beach Boys pastiches on Cold & Bouncy or diversions away from mainstream pop craft on Beet, Maize & Corn, O’Hagan & Co. have explored nearly every facet of their trademark sound. But their eighth album, Can Cladders, finds the London group still conjuring the magic that made their previous output so enchanting.
Can Cladders reveals the band essentially doing what they do best: performing lush, cinematic pop with a light-hearted touch, the likes of which are nearly extinct nowadays, making the Llamas’ presence all the more welcome. After all, this is the band that used the banjo long before Sufjan Stevens brought it back to mainstream indie culture. And that banjo is still largely present, in instrumentals like “Boing Backwards.” With the High Llamas, though, it’s the larger production on the whole that matters most. On a simple pop song like “The Old Spring Town,” the addition of strings, organ and harp can transform it into an extremely elaborate production. Likewise, the female chorus on art theft tale “Winter’s Day” only serves to enhance the track’s gorgeous qualities.
The space age bachelor pad sounds on “Honeytrop” recall the Llamas’ old friends in Stereolab, while “Bacaroo” has a bouncy, Motown-like beat, the female backing vocals only adding to its retro charm. The title track, meanwhile, is a slow and soulful gem, a slightly subtler tapestry of instrumental dazzle and lounge-inspired atmosphere. The combination of beats and swooning strings give “Cove Cutter (Hills and Fields)” a ’70s soul quality, though O’Hagan’s gentle vocals are far breezier and laid back than those of Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield. This only proves its authenticity as a High Llamas original, and a melodically brilliant one at that.
From the jazzy pop songs like “Rollin'” to the light, instrumentals such as “Something About Paper,” Can Cladders is classic Llamas, an album every bit as lovely and elegant as any of their beloved recordings of yore. It’s just refreshing to know that some artists still place an emphasis on making music pretty.
Stereolab – Margerine Eclipse
The Aluminum Group – Pedals
Richard Davies – Telegraph
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.