Just as the TV show M*A*S*H ran longer than the Korean War, the High Llamas have now lasted longer than the musical era they've tried to reenact: roughly 1966 to 1974, the years between the release of Pet Sounds and the death of Nick Drake. The Anglo-Irish band has no problem nailing the gorgeous orchestration and harmonies of the late-60s Beach Boys, but the songs, uniformly sunny in tone and airy in texture, lack the melancholy depth of their models, making the pleasure they bring a slightly guilty one. The retro aesthetic of singer and main songwriter Sean O'Hagan is broad enough to include Burt Bacharach-style fluff too; wading through the outtakes and castoffs on the second disc of last year's Retrospective, Rarities, and Instrumentals (V2) is surprisingly hard considering their lack of substance. At their most focused, though, the Llamas do attain the multilayered baroque glory of Drake's Bryter Layter or Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle. Their latest, Beet, Maize & Corn (Drag City), relies more heavily on horns and strings than any of its predecessors, making it one of the prettiest pieces in a very pretty discography. The High Llamas' last Chicago appearance was in 1998; given the band's gradual transformation into a studio project and O'Hagan's outside interests--he's a regular contributor to Stereolab records, and he does arrangements and remixes for Super Furry Animals--now may be the time to see them. Azita and Branches open. Friday, February 27, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ken Hopper.