Somewhere far above Nathan Williams’ lazy kingdom, Sean O’Hagan and his High Llamas are toasting on the beachward-facing veranda of some glass-fronted, streamline moderne pad, not unlike the one depicted on the front cover of Talahomi Way.
The Llamas aren’t like other bands because they don’t follow the typical release-and-tour template. It’s been four years since Can Cladders and four more since Beet Maize & Corn; clearly, O’Hagan makes albums when he wants to. In fact, no US tour has been planned in support of Talahomi Way. So what keeps the band from engendering a wide and loyal following — namely a lack of playing shows — is the same thing that has allowed O’Hagan the freedom to craft his unique brand of retro-futurist pop.
For sure, retro-futurist is a confusing term to apply to music, but if it can indeed be called a style, the Llamas are its champion. Take the instrumental “Wander, Jack Wander,” which sounds, well, ambulatory. A plodding brass line introduces the tune, overtaken by a string section with schmaltz to spare. But beneath it all, a wah-inflected synth wash reminds us it isn’t 1958, and by the end a childlike organ chimes in too, answering the strings. “Ring of Gold” sounds like Sérgio Mendes and Brazil ’66 (“Going Out of My Head”) in some of their lushest moments.
There’s a combination of eras and sounds just beneath Talahomi Way’s lounge-ready surface that shows that O’Hagan isn’t content just to rely on his substantial string-arranging abilities. He did, after all, play with Stereolab at one time, and the album was mixed by Tim Gane. So when the Brian Wilson-esque “Fly Baby Fly” fades out into one of what O’Hagan has called the “experimental in-between tracks,” we shouldn’t be surprised to hear those squelchy fragmented digital sounds. Overall, it’s quite nice to hear a less puritanically analog approach than their last two albums, and it serves their compositional goals well.
Talahomi Way’s lightness sets it apart from the rest of the Llamas catalog. Moreover, because O’Hagan has always been more of a pop composer than a pop songwriter, it’s hard to fault the frequently lackluster wordplay on the album. (“Take My Hand’s” chorus depends on repetitions of the infuriating rhyme “Take my hand/ And run it through the sand.”) These songs don’t hit you in the gut, and that’s okay. “Berry Adams” plays hooky to head “down on the beach/ There’s a song end that he’s trying to reach,” eschewing steadily gainful employment (“Berry Adams was late the first day”) to think about music at his own pace — not unlike the band, really.
Escapism is the easiest charge to level at bands lumped under that toothless cognomen “chamber pop” — what could be less rock ‘n’ roll than intricate arrangements that cop classical harmony? And aren’t these guys just hanging out on the beach? Well, for one thing, the music is much more ambitious than most of the other trendy, endless summer indie rock like Neon Indian and Wavves. But listen to how the Llamas approach timelessness on “Fly Baby Fly.” The song begins with a sax and clarinet answering each other in bright major tones. A wistful Berry “bring[s] the lights down lower” and imagines flying “all the way to Talahomi.” He watches a “grieving” public “head for the door,” moved, but only “back to where they were before.” After the first time we hear those lyrics, all the brass and winds swell up in a Spector-eque gesture that’s both potent and wistful.
But the public has gone on grieving and nobody’s there to hear it, and the song draws to a close on a minor violin figure with so much bathos it sounds sarcastic. It’s been 21 years since the first High Llamas album, and they’ve since had to face the fact that great audiences don’t always accompany great bands. Yet, on Talahomi Way, the Llamas are in fine, optimistic form, taking a holiday outside of time, to a place where Brian Wilson converses with Shuggie Otis over mai tais, major seventh chords are once again heard in pop songwriting, and distortion is something that happens in a funhouse mirror.