Utopian popsters' sublime rarities are a head and long neck above the opposition
So unprepossessing are The High Llamas, ticking over as consistently as a faithful old grandfather clock, that it’s easy to take them for granted. Competing for your attention, the swagger and thrust of The Strokes wins every time over a bunch of mild-mannered blokes in jeans, one of whom is playing, this late on, a banjo.
Yet, attend long enough to The High Llamas, get beyond the modestly industrious, Heath Robinson-style workings of their musical contraptions and you’ll find yourself infatuated by their troubled Utopian pop. There’s a whole world here that beats hollow the seemingly happening but deadeningly generic new garage rock. Sure, they’re indebted?to Steely Dan on “Checking In, Checking Out”, to Brian Wilson, to fellow travellers Stereolab. Yet there’s a uniqueness to The High Llamas’ aesthetic, a melancholy warmth in their instrumental brush strokes (rippling vibes, clouds of brass), an organic easy-going nature that can effortlessly accommodate bucolic, folksy licks and futuristic bleeps and burbles without clash or contrivance. Carefully plotted and meandering, lush and angular, predictable and unpredictable, the Llamas offer an avant-garde MOR that’s disquietingly reassuring.
Disc One of this collection picks from their ’90s albums and is utterly sublime, especially “Bach Ze”, as sad and sunny as a Hockney painting. Disc Two contains various B-sides and outtakes (notably the exquisite “It Might As Well Be Dumbo”) and makes for a gentler amble through the fresh fields and space stations of Llamaland?less demanding but never dull. A vital purchase for both diehards and novices.