The High Llamas – Beet, Maize & Corn

The High Llamas
Beet, Maize & Corn

With Beet, Maize & Corn, The High Llamas prove that tunes that take you to both a personal mood and a societal setting are hard to create but more rewarding when done carefully. Although “careful” often carries an ugly connotation when applied to musicians, Sean O’Hagan, his band of Llamas, three more brass players, and four string specialists have taken full care to present an exquisite album of soft songs with substance on the lyrical end that brings you to a decades-old house few artists have the guts or skill to enter.
Beet, Maize & Corn opens with trombones on “Barny Mix,” which evokes images of warm days by the shore in the 20s of the last century. O’Hagan’s suggestion that you “Close the gate, make the ocean wait / Hold the sea at bay” is a reflection of the album’s relaxed nature. “Calloway” is an especially strong track, with the string quartet hired for the album shining. O’Hagan wisely starts off the song in a low volume before picking up the pace and vocals. You feel like you’re progressing through a house with a party of classy intellectuals and making your way to the room where the band and most guests are.
“The Click and the Fizz” and “Porter Dimi” both flow with the smooth vibe of flutes, banjos, violins, and light percussion that typifies this album. Lyrically, these two tracks focus on changing seasons, especially the summer and fall, and country homes for the city folk. Male and female backup singers trade vocals between instrumental pauses on “Porter Dimi.” Imagine a group of suburban 40-somethings getting together by the fireplace to sing light tunes. Of particular note to Stereolab fans is that “Porter Dimi” features some of the last recorded vocals by Mary Hansen before she was killed while riding her bicycle.
“Leaf and Lime” starts off with a dreamy bed of guitars and violins that brings to mind a hammock and the lightest comfortable breeze. This track and its instrumental epilogue, “Alexandra Line,” progress from summery afternoon moods to more insular sentiments. By the end of “Leaf and Lime” and beginning of “Alexandra Line,” I had visions of Terence Stamp in The Collector. The High Llamas’ ability to naturally merge the orchestral sweep of the 20s with the sensibilities of the early 60s is evident on further duos like “Rotary Hop” and “Ribbons and Hi Hats,” the latter instrumental completing the declaration of the former: “Have others known, we are leaving the communal home / We’ll head for the coast a day at the most for somewhere new.” Hollywood and Beverly Hills serve as reference points for “The Holly Hills,” and the song sounds like it’s missing from the soundtrack for Picnic, with William Holden and Kim Novak. “Monnie” finishes what “The Holly Hills” starts in grander style without verbal contribution.
Beet, Maize & Corn is a pleasant album of calm, beautiful pop with a touch of class that’s rare. The serenity projected by this album is not without effort. Tension through the tracks is minimal, but none of the songs meander or continue ad nauseam. There is a purpose to every note on Beet, Maize & Corn. The High Llamas use pianos, banjos, violas, cellos, and trombones, to name just a few of their varied instruments, in a complementary manner that yields organic, sweet ear-candy. The cavities are worth it.