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.