The High Llamas, Can Cladders (Duophonic/Drag City, 2007)
The approved critical kneejerk when considering the oeuvre of The High Llamas (essentially consisting of Sean O'Hagan - late of Microdisney and sometime associate of Stereolab - plus a revolving cast of friends) is to say that it sounds more than a bit like Brian Wilson. Which is fair enough. O'Hagan writes melancholy, tuneful songs (check); he likes complex vocal harmonies (check); he's fond of unusual instrumentation, deploying harps, marimbas, banjos and the inevitable tack piano. So far, so derivative. If you demand untarnished originality in all creative product, you're probably inclined to dismiss O'Hagan as a hack, too much in thrall to his idol to escape from his shadow.
But this ignores the conceptual fun you can have with the scenario. After all, Wilson's career is peppered with enticing "what-if?"s, mainly variants on "what if he hadn't been mentally incapacitated for much of his adult life?" Like one of those books that starts with the premise that Hitler won the war, the work of the High Llamas can be seen as a succession of alternative histories. What if Wilson had released Smile in 1967? What if he'd had the strength to stand up to the egregious Mike Love? What if he'd got over his Paul McCartney fixation and transferred his attention to Syd Barrett or Nick Drake or David Bowie or some other damaged, left-field genius?
To an extent, what O'Hagan does with each album is to follow a different what-if. On the latest, Can Cladders, he seems to be going off on a more English pastoral route (which makes the examples of Barrett, et al, quite apposite, and yes, I know O'Hagan's Irish), and places more female voices in the creamy mix. It's very lovely, music to surround and comfort you, music to make you ponder, music against the background of which you can sip peculiar liqueurs and watch flamingos and jugglers do odd things on a lawn at dusk (or maybe it's dawn, you're not quite sure, you've had three too many liqueurs and your watch stopped 30 years ago). Think the Penguin Cafe Orchestra ditching the baroque and going romantic. Or something.
But the fact remains that the real attraction is that it offers us a hypothesis of how Wilson would have sounded if he'd gone down that route in about 1974, rather than getting fat and hairy in his bathrobe. As long as O'Hagan stays in that shadow, any discussion of The High Llamas will really be a discussion of someone else.