A Nice Place to Visit
By Noel Murray
NOVEMBER 17, 1997: Halfway through The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, a song appears that confirms both the cracked genius of Brian Wilson and the transportative power of a pop music masterpiece. Lodged between Wilson's yearning, balladic farewells to youth, it's an instrumental interlude called "Let's Go Away for Awhile." The song is wistfully amelodic, evoking the kind of soothing background music one might hear while dining at an exotic resort. It's at once nostalgic and forward-looking, pitched to some perfect moment at some perfect place in the imagination.
None of the songs on High Llamas' Hawaii is as good as "Let's Go Away for Awhile," but just about every second of this 70-plus-minute suite aims for the same escapist profundity. Of the 33 tracks on the disc, more than half are instrumental variations on a single melodic theme. The "traditional" songs are a series of lyrical meditations on colonialism and on the perils and responsibilities of being a pioneer. Songs like "Pilgrims," "Nomads," and "Campers in Control" sound like excerpts from longer narrative--a story about being happily lost in an untamed paradise.
More importantly, the music itself is also rooted in paradise. Vibes and strings and maracas are as much a part of the mix as bass, guitar, and drums. The foundation is the "beautiful music" of our grandparents, augmented with the twangy shuffle of rock 'n' roll--which means that the louder Hawaii is played, the better it sounds.
High Llamas is essentially the brainchild of Sean O'Hagan, a British journeyman who played in Microdisney and has served time in such disparate outfits as Palace and Stereolab. Hawaii is his third High Llamas release, and it has actually been available in England for over a year. The American release adds a bonus disc, with 40 minutes of new music. Already a cult fave, Hawaii builds on the strength of High Llamas' previous album, Gideon Gaye, which cut O'Hagan's Wilsonphilia with the pleasing bite of Steely Dan.
Hawaii is one of those albums that sounds terrific for the first 15 minutes that it spins in your player, but it can grow tedious; all the repetition of melodies is tough going. The proper way to approach the album is in a state of relaxed indifference. Let the instrumentals carry you away, but stay alert for the concise, meaningful imagery in the lyrics. Lines like "They gather here, this makeshift pier/Trading with the tide" are little haiku postcards, while the music that they emerge from is itself an aural vacation.
Fans of The Jam can be forgiven for giving up on Paul Weller more than a decade ago. When he called down the curtain on Britain's premier pop group in 1983, Weller lapsed into 10 years of watery white soul as leader of The Style Council. Upon the dissolution of that band, however, Weller launched a worthwhile solo career that combined the keen melodic sense of his early endeavors with the relaxed grooves of his late-'80s work.
Four albums into his distinguished years, though, and few rock fans care, save the British (who never lost interest). Which is a shame, because Heavy Soul, Weller's latest, is the kind of pop music that gives "mature" a good name. Songs like "Up in Suze's Room" and "I Should've Been There to Inspire You" have the heft of the classic British blues shouters, with a warm sheen that Joe Cocker hasn't known since Woodstock; meanwhile, ditties like "Driving Nowhere" and "Mermaids" have a gentle, up-tempo melodicism that sounds great in an easy chair.
Is it on a par with All Mod Cons? Heck, no. Weller's best work will always be behind him, mainly because his sober style is best suited to the aggression of loud rock. (Not for nothing does Weller dub his soul Heavy.) Still, he has acquitted himself better than most other aging punkers. (Anyone listened to Paul Westerberg's new Grandpaboy EP more than once?) Weller still knows how to write a catchy tune, and he's overcome his previously stunted song construction by expanding his arrangements and instrumentation.
Solo artists can do that; it's one of the reasons that their careers endure, while bands tend to burn out. Then again, the tension of multiple artists working with and against each other usually produces superior music. Paul Weller alone will never be The Jam. It's silly to expect him to try. But it's also silly to dismiss a talented musician who can still entertain, if not electrify.
I had a revelatory experience while listening to Sitter's eponymous debut album. Three tracks into the band's polished, loud, melodic trip-rock, I was tempted to write off the group as a slick but uninteresting band of British wannabes, another bandwagon-jumping clone of Kula Shaker.
Then I took a peek at the liner notes, which ever so subtly revealed Sitter's German origins. Suddenly, the record took on new dimensions. Seemingly dopey bubble gum songs like "Popstar," "Microwave," "Coffie-Shop," and "Mirrorball" become quirky "outsider" takes on American culture. The buffed-up, fuzzed-out wah-wah guitar on songs like "Melody of Summer" and "Feel" became noteworthy filtrations of American popular music. The music became...interesting. Not groundbreaking, but certainly worth hearing.
It's funny what context can do. Our response to music is often informed by our understanding of who's creating it, and why. The Beatles' "Revolution #9" sounds better if the listener is familiar with "Revolution"; otherwise, it's likely to be considered noisy piffle. It may be piffle anyway--music can't be improved by context--but at least our ears are more open to its potential charms. All of which is a way of saying that Sitter is a better-than-average band of rafter-rattlers; their melodic sense and lyrical obsessions play off their roots in a newly reconstituted country where the intersection of Western European culture and Eastern European culture is breeding vibrant popular music. That they happen to rock is a bonus.
This Scottish combo borrows liberally from the slapdash punk irony of Pavement, so much so that their song "Kozee Heart" opens with an admission that "this song was inspired by Steven Malkmus, and the magic of Pavement." One has to admire the cheek, but it would mean nothing if the songs weren't worthy of their inspiration. Luckily, they are; in fact, this budget-priced singles collection (which follows a mediocre full-length LP) is a welcome, upbeat companion to Pavement's recent dalliance with mid-tempo epics.
It's not just that Yatsura's singles have snap, crackle, and pop; they're also obviously informed by a wealth of indie rock influences. In addition to Stockton's finest, the sounds of The Fall, The Wedding Present, Sonic Youth, Small Factory, Versus, and Yo La Tengo are transmuted into something familiar yet new. Highlights include "Down Home Kitty," which alternates between a grimy guitar riff and a bouncy jangle, with a catchy round of "wee-oos" in the chorus; equally thrilling is "Pampered Adolescent," an epic tale of lost youth, set to slow, chiming power chords.
If nothing else, Yatsura's enthusiasm is all the more refreshing because it comes from a rock society that prizes snobbishness and the pretense of insularity. The greatest sin in British pop is to admit that you listen to other bands. Things are changing, however; Yatsura isn't alone. The venerable Echo and the Bunnymen made reference in a recent interview to how much they enjoy Amerindie bands (not that their enthusiasm enlivened their dismal "comeback" album, Evergreen), and Blur's latest album marked a stylistic change from dance-hall pop to "U.K. slack" (again, to no discernible advantage).
The difference with these established acts is that they're generally too wedded to rigid forms to cut loose completely; that's one of the things that makes British pop appealing--the cleanness. Blur's idea of raw is to toss out the hi-hat and emphasize the toms. Yatsura comes from a more inspired place. Their song "Strategic Hamlets" combines a schoolyard chant, booming rhythms, and lyrics that alternate a Vietnam travelogue with a trip to the movies. That's just the first song on Pulpo, and Yatsura's alchemical combinations of junk and art only get catchier as the collection spins on.
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