he High Llamas defined their sound with 1996’s Hawaii, a lush, orchestral album that infused the band’s influences in sprawling fashion. Touching on themes of colonialism and tourism, it formed a signature sound out of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks-era Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach, and Tropicália. Subsequent releases used it as a blueprint but managed to produce variations on the theme: the colder, more clinical Cold and Bouncy integrated electronics; 2003’s Beet, Maize and Corn was an all-acoustic affair that ditched the rhythm section for full-bodied orchestral flavor.
Bereft of blustering horns or the synthetic squiggles that found their way into the band’s mid-career output, Can Cladders is a pastoral affair featuring female vocals echoing singer Sean O’Hagan and highlighted by the employment of a string quartet to lay down the harmonic bed of several songs—arrangements similar to the ones O’Hagan has provided for, among others, the Super Furry Animals and Sondre Lerche.
This extracurricular activity however, is nothing new to the High Llamas helmsman. Aside from hired-hand string arranging (and a long running association with Stereolab), he recently collaborated with artist Jean-Pierre Muller on a musically interactive painting and also acted as Musical Director for a performance of Tropicália’s manifesto record, Tropicália Ou Panis Et Circencis, at London’s Barbican Theatre. While in Brazil working with legendary band Ochestre Imperial on the latter, he also found time to contribute to an established Rio institution called the +2 Project whose results will be released on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.
Can Cladders (the band’s eighth album) is a happy, light affair, exemplified by not only the music contained within, but also the cover art: a town and country collage (towering skyscrapers look down on a tractor idling in a field) sits atop a pink background as the band’s name balloons above with the cartoon aura of the rising sun. Befitting this pictorial depiction, Can Cladders is the aural equivalent of (as one candy manufacturer puts it) “tasting the rainbow.” But while the band is multicolored in instrumentation and harmonies and aesthetically vibrant in tone, it’s unfortunately one-dimensional in structure.
Several of the tracks start in a similar fashion: swathes of strings fall away to reveal a simple piano line or perfunctory drums. O’Hagan’s voice, not the strongest of vessels, tends to sit between the instrumentation rather than atop of it, letting the music dictate the emotion. A quartet of female vocalists compensate for this throughout, adding a blue-eyed soul edge to “Winter’s Day” and pretty much taking over the clip-clop of the title track. Despite the band’s oft-noted Beach Boys affectations, the album has a quintessentially English feel, especially the ska-tinged verses of “Honeytrop,” which talks of meeting on an English green. “Rollin” bridges the gap between old and new Belle and Sebastian, while “Clarion Union Hall” updates St. Etienne’s English take on European pop.
Perhaps due to their prominence, Can Cladders works best when the strings are actually ditched. The closing couplet of “Dorothy Ashby” and “Rollin” both benefit from this approach, replacing slick production with strong songwriting. The musical highpoints come however, in the form of two short string-less instrumentals: the banjo strum of “Boing Backwards” and “Something About Paper”’s tropical funk.
As evidenced by the popularity of Sufjan Stevens and The Llamas’ Drag City labelmate Joanna Newsom, there’s still a place in the public consciousness for slightly skewed, string-laden orchestral pop. The thing is that these artists don’t allow the “strings,” the “orchestral,” or the “pop” to get in the way of their songwriting, which, unfortunately, lets the High Llamas down and slightly dims their sunny disposition.
Reviewed by: Kevin Pearson
Reviewed on: 2007-03-09