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High Llamas mastermind Sean O’Hagan may well go down in history as the greatest composer of elevator music of his time. Critics have dubbed the sometime Stereolab collaborator’s worka blend of Van Dyke Parks, Steely Dan, thrift-store exotica, and even some good ol’ American funkthings like “cosmic-age-tropical-cabin music.” They’re even calling him the new Brian Wilson.
As forced as it might be, the comparison does make some sense: Wilson was a bona fide musical genius who chose to make surf songs; O’Hagan exercises his own not-inconsiderable gifts writing music for dentists’ offices.
Buzzle Bee, the Llamas’ sixth album, chronicles O’Hagan’s continuing flirtation with bubble-headed ’60s easy listeningthe very music I have to thank for my high school diploma. Every time I feigned illness to stay home from school, I was forced to endure my mom’s extensive collection of eight-tracks featuring insipid 101 Strings versions of Burt Bacharach favoriteswhich gave me no choice but to become a model student.
In fact, Buzzle Bee is even more excruciating, because instead of strings, O’Hagan relies on a lobotomized bunch of singers whose sole function seems to be to go “la la” through every other song. I dare you to count the number of “la la”s on this disc. You know how, in Scarface, Al Pacino says “fuck” at least 8,000 times? Well, Buzzle Bee is the Scarface of la-la music. “La la”s do their best to ruin “The Passing Bell,” become unbearable on the vaguely funky instrumental “Switch Pavilion,” figure prominently in the already useless “Sleeping Spray,” and make you sorry you’re alive on “New Broadway.” They’re less a musical device than a musical tic, a shorthand way of reiterating O’Hagan’s statement of purpose, which seems to be “pure kitsch for now people.”
That said, there’s a part of me that likes Buzzle Bee a lot. In terms of pure sound quality, it’s the most gorgeous album I’ve ever heard. Listen to it on a Walkman of even mediocre quality, and you’ll swear the tiny bones inside your ears are having rapturous sex with leggy supermodels. I’m talking a sensuous experience of the first order. Each and every plucked banjo string, electronic bleep, shaken tambourine (check out “Tambourine Day”), and plinked vibe (on the oddball instrumental “Pat Mingus,” they sound as if they were being played directly on your eardrums) comes out of the ether with startling clarity. Add to this O’Hagan’s indisputable knack for filling the cracks in his wall of sound with the oddest and rightest little sonic bits and bobs, and you’ve got nothing less than ear candy by Godiva.
But so what? I don’t listen to music for my ears’ sake. I listen to music because it’s good for my heart, because it gives me the courage to go my daily 12 rounds with sneering, ham-fisted life. And that, in my book, is where the Llamas go wrong and the comparisons to Brian Wilson just don’t hang 10. Wilson’s genius lay less in his studio wizardry than in his ability to give voice to the emotional yearning of an entire generation of adolescents. His knob-twiddling was always in the service of a greater good: He wrote his “teenage symphonies to God” to make kids happy. O’Hagan’s raison d’être seems to be to give audiophiles an excuse to flex their $9,000 stereos. The Llamas make head music in the truest sense of the term; there’s no heart in it at all.
So forget Brian Wilson. Buzzle Bee is Californian only in the sense that it’s the product of highly talented studio musicians. Which is why comparisons to Aja-era Steely Dansoured-on-rock, talented-as-all-get-out hipsters hung up on technology, their cool-jazz moves all airbrushed and perfectare apt, whereas comparisons to the Beach Boys are so much bullshit. Not that the Llamas can hold a candle to Steely Dan, whose greatness lay in the way the band used its antiseptic sound as a counterpoint to the chaos of its lyrics, creating a tension that makes even its blandest jazz-schlock offerings interesting, if hardly moving.
But O’Hagan’s lyrics are as vapid as his music. In the “The Passing Bell,” for example, the Llamas (in addition to O’Hagan, they’re Rob Allum on drums and percussion, Jon Fell on bass and background vocals, and Marcus Holdaway on keyboards and background vocals) get all English-folksy-sounding. But instead of setting off the pretty vacuousness of the music with some clever, withering lyrics, O’Hagan has a chorus sing, “Lay down at the foot of the Rye/Lay down watch the traffic go by” about 89 times.
The words O’Hagan puts to “Tambourine Day” are similarly opaque: “The building was gray, chipping the paint it was tired and fallen and poor/The figure was dim, hand on the seat would it just get the wheels through the door.” Come again? The closest he comes to intelligibility on Buzzle Bee is “Get Into the Galley Shop,” which includes the lines that could serve as his own musical epitaph: “Carrying the nylon suits/All of them a shade of blue/Rinky dinky cocktail tune/Helps to see the evening through.”
There’s something to be said for making shallow, pretty music for its own sakeor as a commentary on the not-really-that-deep “meaningfulness” that is the curse of so much modern pop. But even if the Llamas are making elevator music in service of a grand ideahey, no less a giant of smarty-pants modernism than Erik Satie wanted his music to be as innocuous as wallpaperI’ll be damned if I care. If it were ideas I wanted, I’d read Kant, except I can’t understand a bloody word the brainy Kraut is saying, which leaves me with rock ‘n’ roll, which this album of perky easy listening most definitely ain’t.
It’s possible I’ll put Buzzle Bee on again, if only to listen to “Get Into the Galley Shop”‘s Steely Dan-ish swing. But then again, why wouldn’t I just play some good, aching Brian Wilson tunes instead? They’re nice on the ears and make the heart glad, and God only knows what we’d be without them. CP