Although the High Llamas are nominally a group, they're pretty much the brainchild of singer and guitarist Sean O'Hagan. O'Hagan did some time in the London-by-way-of-Dublin band Microdisney, in which he was the songwriting partner of Cathal Coughlan. After Microdisney split in 1988 (Coughlan forming Fatima Mansions), O'Hagan released a couple of import-only solo albums before forming the High Llamas. The Llamas issued their debut, Gideon Gaye, in 1994 to high praise in the British press; it was released in the States a year later almost as an afterthought, with virtually no fanfare.
Comparisons of O'Hagan/the High Llamas to Brian Wilson/the Beach Boys are unavoidable, and not just from arcane critics. Anyone with a large Beach Boys collection will detect the uncanny resemblance to 1966-1970 Beach Boys, with the sophisticated melodies, the beautiful harmonies, and the elaborate production, with the emphasis on layered keyboards and orchestration. Echoes of Pet Sounds, SMiLE, Wild Honey, and Surf's Up predominate, though O'Hagan also claims Burt Bacharach as a major inspiration.
The Llamas began to build a bigger and bigger fan base throughout the late '90s (in the U.S. as well as the U.K.), and O'Hagan's ever-shifting, ever-growing stable of side musicians made sure every album was as beautifully arranged and carefully conceived as the last. Subsequent efforts include 1996's gorgeously sprawling Hawaii, 1997's warmly clinical Cold and Bouncy, and 1999's chilly Snowbug. Buzzle Bee arrived the following year, featuring a more stripped-down sound and guest vocals from Mary Hansen from Stereolab. Before her tragic death in late 2002, O'Hagan had Hansen onboard for the Llamas' chamber pop masterpiece Beet, Maize & Corn. Virtually eliminating the standard "electric guitar, bass, and drums" formula, Beet, Maize & Corn was full of lilting strings, warm horns, and gently plucked classical guitars, and proved to be a high achievement for the Llamas with both critics and fans.
Four years later, in 2007, O'Hagan and company revisited the sunny sprawl of Hawaii (as well as Cold and Bouncy's technical slickness) for the upbeat and lovingly crafted Can Cladders. For 2011's Talahomi Way, the band opted for a warmer, more overtly '60s-inspired sound. By the time of their next album, the band's membership included Pete Aves, Dominic Murcott, Marcus Holdaway, Jon Fell, and Rob Allum along with mainstay O'Hagan. Here Come the Rattling Trees began as a theater piece revolving around characters O'Hagan invented while bicycling around his Peckham neighborhood. The group performed it in pubs and theaters in 2014, then recorded the musical portions for Drag City to release in early 2016. ~ Richie Unterberger