City and Country

Guanaco-like nature boys forgo corn for Parks and Hills

Is any songwriter more finely attuned to the shimmering membrane separating city and country than Sean O'Hagan? The rural title of the High Llamas' lush and lovely Beet, Maize & Corn stands in contrast to a cover reproducing abstracty cityscapes by painter Jeremy Glogan. Inside, O'Hagan sings with gentle inevitability about places where the green and gray worlds blend, rendering remarkably beautiful melodies in a medium-high everyman voice. O'Hagan's songs, like John Crowley's funky fairy novel Little, Big, suggest a mysterious and inscrutable old world just barely hanging on to its secrets as dams, malls, and tourists encroach. "Inside the lean-to is happy to bend," O'Hagan sings in "Porter Dimi," while "outside the visitors struggle to spend."

"Dulcet is the click and fizz, fine beyond compare," begins an effervescent chorus describing a distant marching band. The line could also apply to the High Llamas' sound, which has shaken off the electronic insect drones of 2000's fine Buzzle Bee and evolved into a spunky sinfonietta of strings, brass, and guitars. The arrangements derive, in the nicest way, from Van Dyke Parks, who is name-checked in "The Holly Hills," about a mythological L.A. where "a town will turn to city, well water must be found." The tune makes explicit the West Coast obsession that has always marked O'Hagan's work. But I hear just as much Paddy McAloon and Incredible String Band in Beet, Maize & Corn—which turns out to be the nature boy's least corny album in a decade's worth of Irish-tinged West Coast pop-art experimentalism.

 
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