Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Second life of Brian

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.

9 comments:

Billy said...

I always preferred the Fatima Mansions to the High Llamas. Anyone who dismembers a Bryan Adams song for charidee is good in my book.

Robert Swipe said...

Didn't Microdisney do a song called "We hate you, white South African bastards?"

Racists...

L.U.V. on ya,

Bob

p.s.: I don't think Wilson should be judged a failure because he fucked up. I've always thought of him as being a fabulously accurate reflection of a particular kind of American naivety - think of him blubbing into his Dr. Pepper in the den as he writes The Warmth of the Sun on hearing of the death of JFK. Arguably, anything else would have been a betrayal of his artistic credibility, he'd even had the self-consciousness necessary to do a Barrett/Bowie.

You could argue that he didn't so much as lose his talent as much as he lost his way. And perhaps the world found himself reflecting at that point is just so hard to relate to - you sense the constant need of an ego that's been battered away at since birth It really comes through in all those bootlegs of him making up songs, the lyrics of which tell you exactly what he's thinking at that moment and who's just come into the room and can he go to the toilet now please nurse? and so on.

Some of it is more naked even than Lennon's Primal stuff - certainly less posturing - and his deep voice is if anything, even more moving than that glorious falsetto of his that sits atop the other BB's on the surfing classics like the froth on a soda, the sparkle of a wave. Just listen to him sing something like 'It's Over Now' and then go back to 'I get around' it makes the younger man sound even more poignant, if anything.

Well, that's what Alex Hleb reckoned, anyroad...

Robert Swipe said...

I hate this fecking laptop!

Tim Footman said...

Yes, Billy, FM did have their moments. However, I used to work with Cathal Coughlan's girlfriend, who was an absolute sweetheart, and they split up in a pretty apocalyptic fashion. Let's just say the fault was mainly on his side. So I never quite appreciated his music in the same way afterwards.

Bob: I've been meaning for ages to do a proper Brian Wilson post, rather than just tacking thoughts about him to other subjects, or just as an exuse to diss Mike Love. But after your contribution, I won't bother. That's beautiful.

Murph said...

Mike Love's Beach Boys were rocking good value last time I saw them.

Bowie "damaged, left-field genius" ... ?? Shrewd chancer, more like.

Flamebait-R-us

Robert Swipe said...

Nonsense Tim: you *must* do one...

Pretty please...

Oh, *go* on....

I'll put a piccy of me reading your book up in me Arsenal top if you do...can't say fairer that that, can you??

L.U.V. on ya,

Bob

Robert Swipe said...

Shrewd chancer, Murph? *Shrewd* *Chancer*???

I'm speechless....

..you randy, conniving, bogus, oriental old (you know the rest...)

L.U.V. on ya,

Bob

Murph said...

His record sleeves are better than his songs.

Tim Footman said...

OOOH. Retract your claws, Murph, or it's not Baker's shite for you.