The High Llamas
Cold and Bouncy
In a 1995 documentary about Brian Wilson, Tom Petty put his finger on what set Wilson apart as an artist. Petty said that what always astonished him about Wilson's Beach Boys productions was not the sound of any one instrument, but the collective sound.
Wilson intuitively understood that when different instruments played the same parts, they enriched each other, and magically transformed each other's tonal properties.
It's a lesson that Sean O'Hagan of the British quintet the High Llamas has learned well. O'Hagan specializes in using simple parts to build a complex whole. He'll underline piano changes with vibes and banjos, introduce a violin counterpoint and use tape loops to create a constant wash of gurgling noises. Whereas so many disciples of Wilson's glorious Pet Sounds period take their cue from tracks like "Good Vibrations" or "God Only Knows," O'Hagan seems even more influenced by the obscure instrumental "Let's Go Away for Awhile."
Every other song on the High Llamas' fourth album, Cold and Bouncy, is an atmospheric instrumental, a piece of mood music for a movie that has yet to be made. From time to time, as on the lilting "Glide Time," he spices things up with borderline cheesy female voices in la-la-la mode, doing their best impression of the theme from A Man and a Woman.
A few years ago, this kind of flirtation with Muzaklike soundscapes would have been roundly condemned. But we're in the middle of a reappraisal of pop's fluffy past. Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb are winning new appreciation for their sophisticated sense of arrangement, and their grandiose creations have acquired the ring of ersatz psychedelia. In the hands of a retro futurist like O'Hagan, the result is rave music for people addicted to melody.
Whenever O'Hagan opens his mouth, his Wilsonesque songs start to sound like some combination of XTC and Gilbert O'Sullivan. "The Sun Beats Down" escapes the limits of its inane lyric with a wondrously yearning melody, and "Tilting Windmills" straddles the edges of cutesiness but emerges triumphant.
It also offers a thought that could very well serve as O'Hagan's mantra: "Simple gestures get you there." On this overly long (62 minutes) but lovingly crafted album, simple gestures get O'Hagan everywhere he wants to go.
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Back in the day, kings of swing created records that crackled with life. Because of technical limitations, albums were produced quickly, as the large orchestra and accompanying singers would record live to tape. Frank Sinatra became famous for maximizing this kind of spontaneity during his studio sessions. The seemingly eternal swinger would tell his conductors, "Let's keep it moving, please, because if it bogs down, it's deadly." Unlike some of today's newer artists, he truly understood that performance is paramount.
Now that swing is here again, record shelves are hosts to a plethora of releases from bands that perform in big-city clubs. Here's the problem: Swing music is primarily dance music, and the energy experienced at live gigs is nearly impossible to capture on CD. Still, amid an outpouring of lukewarm releases, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy tries its best to restore the tradition with this self-titled recording.
Actually, BBVD's independently released debut, Hey Nice Shoes, was just another one of those tepid toe-tapping, neo-swing releases. However, the band's live show had developed quite a following, and when coupled with the competent songwriting of bandleader Scotty Morris, the CD managed to escape trade-bin status. Soon afterward, talent and timing combined when BBVD acquired major exposure with its appearance in the hit film Swingers. Major labels jumped on the emerging trend by signing every hip, hot and horny band. To Capitol Records, BBVD band members are the poster children for the new-swing scene, and the label used the band as a launch pad for its new subsidiary, Coolsville Records.
As a result, the group had the opportunity to record the new album at the Capitol Tower in the legendary Studio B where the voices of Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole and Louis Prima once reverberated. Predictably, BBVD decided to reapproach some of its old material with the big money behind it. Five of the 12 cuts on this album were previously recorded. Three titles from the first disc, "Jumpin' Jack," "King of Swing" and "So-Long-Farewell-Goodbye," are among the cleaner pressings, and they're sharp as a tack. On the other hand, studio dollars could have been saved by not rerecording "Go Daddy-O" and "You & Me & the Bottle Makes Three Tonight (Baby)." Originally released on the Swingers soundtrack, these tracks still stand as two of BBVD's most inspired and energetic performances. The new versions, however, sound more meticulous and disciplined. They jump and jive, but fail to re-create that ol' black magic.
BBVD's interpretation of Prima's "I Wanna Be Just Like You" proved a good choice on the soundtrack, but its new disc includes a bum version of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," one of the most overly covered songs of all time.
Still, BBVD executes great musicianship throughout this album. All of the big 17-piece arrangements are performed with a mere four-piece horn section, upright bass, piano, drums and guitar. Even though it may not be the whole bottle, it's enough to fill your flask.
And that's a lot of kick from such a small container.
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