The High Llamas

Beet, Maize & Corn

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The High Llamas are not a band that has ever put a lot of stock in change. They have charted a course that has remained steadfastly true to their intentions of rechanneling late-'60s Beach Boys records through a filter of Steely Dan-styled soft rock and electronic cleverness. Each record since the brilliant Gideon Gaye has been a near carbon copy of the last, an enjoyable copy but still nothing that different. That being said, their seventh album does represent a rather dramatic shift in the High Llamas' sound. Practically gone are electric guitars and synthesizers; in their place are gently strummed acoustic guitars and lush orchestral string and horn arrangements. Songs like "High on the Chalk" and "The Holly Hills" go so far as to dispense with guitars and drums altogether. In fact, only a couple of songs have drums, and they are firmly pushed to the background. The organic sounds give the record a newfound sense of poignancy and grace. They are still unflinchingly clever, but cleverness is no longer the best thing they have going for them. Sean O'Hagan's vocals have never sounded better or more resonant, and he surrounds them with clouds of breathtaking background harmonies (one of the singers is Mary Hansen, who was tragically killed late in 2002). The entire record is overflowing with pastoral beauty that reaches a climax at the end of the record with the one-two heart punch of the truly wonderful instrumental "Monnie" and the sad and majestic ballad "The Walworth River." Beet, Maize & Corn is a dramatic reinvention of the High Llamas; anyone who had written them off as a one-trick pony had better get working on a new edition because that book is dead wrong.

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