The brainchild of former rock writer and Microdisney member Sean O'Hagan, the High Llamas leave the orch-pop competition in the dust--but hey, who's looking back? On the group's recent, sprawling Hawaii (V2) and to a lesser extent on 1994's Gideon Gaye (Epic), O'Hagan and his quintet appropriate the brilliant arrangements of Van Dyke Parks and Smile-era Beach Boys (in particular "Cabinessence") with great panache. But if O'Hagan borrows the language, he writes his own stories with it. Like Stereolab, to whose records O'Hagan has contributed horn and string arrangements over the last five years, he's mastered the fine art of juxtaposition, braiding classic pop forms with amorphous instrumental passages and gurgling synthesizer sounds with pristine string parts. While Gideon Gaye suffered from overripe harmonies that occasionally recalled Steely Dan, it was crammed with deliriously melodic tunes--and if there's any problem with the far more ambitious follow-up, it's that O'Hagan tends to get so absorbed in the grandiloquent arrangements that his hooks are overwhelmed. Regardless, Hawaii is one of the most spectacular pop records made in the last few years, and although live the band can't possibly approach the breadth of the recording, the High Llamas' Chicago debut promises to be one of this season's concert highlights. Bonus: quasi-classical dullards Rachel's headline, so you can easily make an early night of it. Saturday, 10 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 773-525-6620. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Steve Double.