The High Llamas

Cecil Sharp House


Within earshot of London Zoo's lions, inside the splendour of the English Folk Song Society's walls, Sean O'Hagan is trying to raise a ghost. ' guiding light has wrestled with this phantom before. It's the spirit of Brian Wilson he needs. Last year, he tried to summon that spirit from the husk of Wilson himself, called in to try to heal the Beach Boys' wounds. O'Hagan failed to reunite them in the flesh. So he continues to resurrect them in his music. The first two High Llamas albums reconstituted Wilson's surf-sounds at their most melancholy, strengthened them with a dash of Steely Dan, a hint of soundtrack music. Their next album, Cold and Bouncy, will loosen those shackles. But tonight, the necrophiliac surf still washes over the Llamas.

It seems almost churlish to complain. The sounds they have made their obsession are so beautiful, after all. For a while, it is possible to lose yourself in the Smile-era glow. The strings and the brass and the clopping hooves all sit in their alloted space in the intimate intricacy of Wilson's vision. The voices harmonise, rougher than the Beach Boys, and the better for it. It's reliably pretty. Until you realise: I'veheard this all before. Why am I hearing it again?

It is not a problem for tonight's crowd, polite pop obsessives happy with old thrills. But for anyone not a member of this master-class, the magic soon fades. The surprise on which pop depends is not possible when you are working with a corpse. The melodic sense the true Wilson honed in unforgiving pop charts before he entered the laboratory which the High Llamas now worship isn't O'Hagan's. The beauty becomes indistinguishable, the more of it he piles on our plate.

Each song eventually becomes a mantra or a coda, before or after the climax, never at the point of satisfaction. Like so much current pop, O'Hagan is not only hypnotised by the recent past. He is attempting the grace and sweep of orchestral music, too. Wilson, tormented by competition with supreme talents, would have approved. But it is a distracting grail for pop, weakening its shock.

Only on the songs from Cold and Bouncy does O'Hagan push past the phantoms which bar his way. It is a record on which the Beach Boys at last fade to a trace, a record on which their ghost is laid. As trills and bleeps and brass squirt over surf-synth repetition, you can lose yourself in it. "Let's rebuild the past, 'cause the future can't last," O'Hagan sings at one point. When his music works, it does not matter when we are.

`Cold and Bouncy' (Alpaca) is out on 26 January. begin a full UK tour on 29 January at Brighton Pavilion.