The High Llamas

Can Cladders

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Sean O'Hagan and the High Llamas have been accused of emulating everyone from Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach to Steely Dan and Brian Wilson, along with Brian Wilson, as well as Brian Wilson (with a healthy dash of Brian Wilson in there too, for good measure). Really, it's ridiculous, but what's the harm that a few myopic reviewers can't say anything more telling than "Sean's a Brian Wilson clone"? It's a darn high compliment, given the stature Wilson has achieved, and says more about those music critics' inability to see beyond their own "Top Ten albums of all time" than any creative shortcomings on O'Hagan's part. Get off it! Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. If gorgeous arrangements, unusual instrumentation and innocent wit make you Brian Wilson then why doesn't Neil Hannon, Rufus Wainwright (hell...he's even got Van Dyke Parks on his records) and a host of other gorgeously arranged artists get pegged as Wilson wannabes? Could it be that O'Hagan is simply at the top of the heap -- that he's the pinnacle? Could he be (gulp) as good as Brian Wilson??!!?! He just might be, thank you very much. Pet Sounds, SMiLE and a scant handful of other prime Wilson works, verses O'Hagan and his ten-plus albums of exquisite beauty and detail could sway the (utterly preposterous and fictional) battle right there. But it is precisely O'Hagan's prolific nature that seems to irk his detractors most. "How can this guy keep cranking out these fab records?" (If four years between some albums can be referred to as "cranking it out") or "he's just coasting." Not likely -- but if he is, he's doing so marvelously.

Over the course of their career, the High Llamas successfully combined '60s pop sensibilities with burbling analog synth accents and laid-back, West Coast vibes with a NYC session cat's journeyman aesthetic. Every Llamas album has embraced these creative styles in varying degrees: from Gideon Gaye's decidedly '60s Brit-pop bent, to Hawaii's sprawling and breezy beaches, to Cold and Bouncy's warmly clinical brand of slickness, to Beet, Maize & Corn's detailed chamber pop, the Llamas have succeeded at every slight stylistic turn they have taken. Now, with 2007's Can Cladders, O'Hagan and the Llamas are bringing it all together. Every stylistic element that has ever graced the grooves of their past albums is present here, with synth blurbs and Baroque-via-the-beach string arrangements holding equal footing throughout. Bacharach-ian backing vocals and Wilson-esque instrumentation hold equal ground with Motown rhythms and Steely Dan slick-ery, but the whole thing sounds natural and familiar, rather than over-thought, forced and derivative. Four years in the making, Can Cladders could have come off the presses as an indulgent, overwrought opus. Instead, it simply (but oh-so-craftily) distilled a career's worth of creative tangents into one solid, focused effort that, if you're observant enough, holds its own amongst the likes of the Llamas' comparative "elite."

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