When The High Llamas were at their most prolific, between 1996 and 2000, bandleader Sean O'Hagan tried half a dozen ways to shuffle his sound, flirting with electronica and musique concrete. But the songs still came out like schematic Beach Boys homages, overlaid with a light tracing of Steely Dan. The result was one indie-pop masterpiece, 1996's Hawaii, followed by three albums of diminishing, muddled refrains. So O'Hagan put the band to rest for three years, and came back with Beet, Maize And Corn, a refinement of The High Llamas' sound that substituted brevity and clarity for fruitless experimentation. And now, four more years on, here's Can Cladders, another set of pitch-perfect, heart-stoppingly lovely songs about idyllic places and seasonal memories.
O'Hagan and company do a little growing this time out. Songs like "Winter's Day" layer bouncy piano and guitar strumming over winding strings, just like always, but there's also an infusion of soul, courtesy of female backup vocalists. Those additional voices open up Can Cladders, turning it from a monologue into a conversation, and tearing away some of The High Llamas' insularity. The results are plain on "Clarion Union Hall," which converts a glee-club homage into something funky and playfully abstract.
It remains slightly damning that bands like The High Llamas—the ones that draw on limited, recognizable influences—generally aren't as adventurous or inspired as the musicians they favor. But by this point, The High Llamas' version of resort-chic-pop has become almost idiosyncratically their own. And it helps that Can Cladders gets through 13 songs in just under 40 minutes, with no waste and no excess. It's not a grand departure, just the best album yet by one of the modern-rock era's most loveable bands.