Each time I start spinning The High Llamas’ latest release, Talahomi Way, all sorts of relatively arcane thoughts and associations pop into my ol’ pumpkin head. First off, it recalls Brian Wilson’s crowning achievements with the Beach Boys, Pet Sounds and Smile; when I first heard High Llamas that’s the only thing I could relate it to. Fifteen years later, I know better, and I hear this outfit’s oeuvre in a much wider and more complicated context, as I do the Beach Boys’ work.
There was of course Phil Spector’s canon of pocket symphonies—a huge influence on Brian Wilson, who in fact employed a lot of Phil’s musicians in realizing his most ambitious and visionary works. Less obvious was the curious culture that germinated at Warner Bros. Records and the fledgling Reprise, which was soon subsumed by it, where puzzled but brilliant record execs tried to navigate the transition from post-big band pop, show-tunes and film soundtracks to rock as their core business. And they made the changes reluctantly and by half measures, valiantly trying to retain as much of their old showbiz values as they could manage, yielding some of the most curious music of the rock era.
Which brings us to yet another strange aside: nowadays we think of “psychedelia” as betokening screaming extended guitar leads, raga influenced melodies, perhaps extended improvisation AND YET the first documented psychedelic band, The Charlatans out of San Francisco, were in fact playing campy vaudevillian renditions of jug band, other folks music, and originals done in that vein. They were soon joined by more acts working in a similar vein, The Warlocks (soon to become the Grateful Dead), the Jefferson Airplane—mutating barbershop quartet harmonies in their adaptation of folk and blues. It’d appear that most of these bands had a major stylistic epiphany when the Texas band 13th Floor Elevators came to town, as just about every one of them nabbed that outfit’s biting guitar attack and penchant for extended rave ups. One notable exception was the Tikis, who stuck with more traditional borderline corny vibe.
When top San Francisco DJ Tom Donahue was approached by Warner Bros. A&R staff to bring them the hot Bay Area bands, the Tikis were among those he pulled up with. Renamed Harper’s Bizarre, they were teamed with house produced Lenny Waronker as well as up and coming staff writers like Van Dyke Parks and Randy Newman and set about making Warner Bros. first “psychedelic” record. What they whipped up was an entirely surreal usurpation of Tin Pan Alley traditions—ironic, cynical, oft times absurdist lyrics with music that celebrated, yet subverted, beloved aesthetic conventions with the occasional strange melodic twist, ominous suspended chords dropped in unexpectedly and so on. It was rich, involving, compositionally dense music yet delivered with a psychedelic trickster's flippancy.
Harper’s Bizarre was not alone, there actually was a group of like-minded artists that arose at the time who valued rock’s sense of freedom and drive to innovate, the psychedelic perception that boundaries are illusory and that ANYTHING can be mixed with just about anything else. Indian classical scales with folk vocal harmonies with electrified 12-string guitars, to name a few. They just applied it to showbiz-related oeuvres: Harry Nilsson, Biff Rose, Van Dyke Parks, Brute Force and too many others who got to make one or two albums by labels desperate to reach the rock market but nervous about taking on dirty, nasty kids playing blues based music.
Americans didn’t have a monopoly on this lovely, unlikely bastardized artistic stance. The English had the likes of Scott Walker who was incredibly successful with music of this sort for a couple albums. Meanwhile there were few forward thinking Brits who didn’t try their hand once at rendering one of the dark, plush chamber-pop gems by East Coast enigma Tim Hardin.
Looking over this whole trend, one can’t ignore that its power lie in an exceedingly delicate balance of seemingly contradictory tendencies, a balance that was all too botched and produced the worst cheesy dreck. Indeed “Light Rock” was born out of the same vortex of influences gone horribly wrong with just one or two elements being subtly out of kilter.
The High Llamas’ Talahomi Way is a celebration of this bent, all but lost oeuvre at its most powerful, original and mischievous. As always, Sean O’Hagan’s writing is unabashedly melodic and richly orchestrated yet consistently seeking out detours from orthodoxy in the directions the tunes take, and in the way each passage succeeds the other with precipitous shifts in instrumental density and texture occurring throughout. This of course was the great lesson of Pet Sounds and Smile; modular writing and performance where songs ceased being linear, repetitive and predictable and were built as a succession of delightful aesthetic surprises—anomalous yet all relevant to one another.
On this latest album, O’Hagan invests the whole process with an intimacy and quaint folksiness I hadn’t heard on previous albums. His vocals are charmingly unpolished and many of the orchestrations give way to bits delivered with simply a single keyboard and guitar.
Over the years, I’d sort of written these guys off but with Talahomi Way they’ve won me back in a big way. [Drag City]
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