High Llamas – Beet, Maize & Corn
After putting out seven records in eight years, the High Llamas went quiet for three years. They’re back with Beet, Maize & Corn, and befitting a hiatus from public endeavors, change is in evidence.
The songwriting of Sean O’Hagan is still a delightful melange of melodies and counter-melodies, but the arrangements have subtly broadened with a focus on judiciously used strings, horns and other wholly acoustic instruments. Comparisons to Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds and the legendary Smile shipwreck have accompanied the Llamas from the outset, but it’s important to further elaborate and contextualize those comparisons. Rather than merely aping or simply scampering about Wilson’s weighty shadow, O’Hagan and his cohorts have internalized their influences, treating them as a tradition from which to build their own world.
Lyrically, they’re closer to Van Dyke Parks’ fractured poetics than anything Wilson or any of his other wordsmith collaborators brought forth. The combination of the words and music make for a sum often greater than the parts, which can be the mark of a successful song. The lyrics spring fully to life when fully inflated by the melodic component.
Throughout, the relaxed vocals belie a sophistication in both arrangement and performance. “Porter Dimi” offers a call-and-response that mirrors the quiet contrasts in the lyrics. O’Hagan’s singing on “Leaf And Lime” positively lounges atop strings that alternate between bowed undulations and festive pizzicatos. Beet, Maize & Corn adds a new peak to one of the most consistently alluring bodies of work to emerge in the past decade.