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By Michael Henningsen

MARCH 30, 1998: 

Alibi Rating Scale:
!!!!!= Fresh 'n' Full o' Life
!!!!= Mentos: The Freshmaker!
!!!= April Fresh
!!= Fresh Prince
!= Not So Fresh Feeling

The High Llamas Cold and Bouncy; Hawaii; Gideon Gaye; Santa Barbara (V2/Alpaca)

Sean O'Hagan, formerly of the '80s duo Microdisney and since 1993 an auxiliary member of Stereolab, is a curiously '90s kind of pop genius. Each album by his High Llamas contains a specific set of influences not in evidence on the other three, yet all four sound completely of a piece. Like few other songwriters, Sean O'Hagan is able to synthesize disparate musics into a cohesive and original whole. Now that the High Llamas' entire back catalogue is finally widely available in the U.S., newcomers can do some catching up.

Santa Barbara, released in 1992, is Sean at his most song-oriented. Containing more guitars than the other three albums put together, the songs are nonetheless built on the foundation of Marcus Holdaway's keyboards and accented with mandolins, strings and soon-to-depart second guitarist Amanda Visser's helium-filled harmonies. The end result owes as much to Serge Gainsbourg as to the Byrds. The gently self-mocking "Period Music" ("There hasn't been a tune since the Beatles went weird") sets the tone for the album and has probably gone a long way towards establishing the "retro obsessive" tag the UK music press has stuck on Sean ever since.

Gideon Gaye, released in 1994, is a flawless masterpiece that will go down as one of the absolute best albums of the decade. The most audible influence here is Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson. The heartbreakingly lovely "The Goat Looks On" in particular bears a striking resemblance to that album's "Let's Go Away For A While." (Sean was later asked to produce a new Beach Boys album, a job he declined.) Other songs recall Steely Dan ("Checking In, Checking Out") and early-'60s West Coast cool jazz (the 14-minute flute-accented explorations of "Track Goes By"), and Gideon Gaye also introduced Sean's ongoing musical trademark: The album's 13 tracks segue effortlessly.

Hawaii, released in 1996, is only slightly less stunning than Gideon Gaye. The segues have become an integral part of the album's structure. Nearly a third of the 29 tracks on this 73-minute album are instrumental links lasting under a minute. This gives the album a suite-like feel; it's one of those rare albums that you have to sit and listen to as a whole or it just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Brian Wilson's influence fades into the background on Hawaii, subsumed by echoes of Ennio Morricone and other Italian film composers (as in Morricone's work, banjos play a major role in this album's arrangements, almost the lead instrument in many songs), Burt Bacharach (the string and brass sections are amazingly lush), and even a little Ray Conniff in the endlessly-multitracked wordless backing vocals. Combined with all of these is a greater use of alternately droning and pulsating synths (first hinted at in bits of Gideon Gaye), showing that the five years Sean's spent collaborating with Stereolab have had quite an effect on his own music.

Stereolab's drummer, Andy Ramsay, takes an active role in the Llamas' newest, Cold and Bouncy. The title refers to the burbling analog synths which link and color the songs. Taking a cue from such current German synthesists as Mouse on Mars, Sean and Andy created an electronic sound laboratory which (truth in advertising) does sound both remarkably bouncy and quite cold (in the sense of "inhuman"). Heard in counterpoint to Sean's songs, which are among his best ("Tilting Windmills" and "Painters Paint" are particularly strong) and warmest (the main influence this time around seems to be 1960s Brazilian jazz on the order of Joao and Astrud Gilberto), the dichotomy creates a tension not found on the earlier records. However, though the title suggests otherwise, this is not a cerebral record. Sean's lyrics, as always, are packed with free-associative wordplay and striking images, and his singing is at its most relaxed. Those who first came to the High Llamas knowing them as "the band who sounds like the Beach Boys" might disapprove, but Cold and Bouncy is yet more proof that Sean O'Hagan is one of the most talented artists of the decade. Cold and Bouncy: !!!!; Hawaii: !!!!1/2; Gideon Gaye: !!!!!; Santa Barbara: !!!1/2

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