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The High Llamas: Beet, Maize & Corn

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It isn't really an insult to call The High Llamas' seventh album, Beet, Maize & Corn, "easy listening," since Sean O'Hagan's band has, since its 1992 debut, leaned toward the pleasant. Drawing on Steely Dan's laid-back vibe and The Beach Boys' late-'60s orchestral experiments, O'Hagan has sought to distill the essence of leisure–from poolside naps and backyard picnics to luxury hotels and nouvelle cuisine–into soft, deceptively simple music. Recent High Llamas albums have dabbled in electronica and symphonic minimalism, with O'Hagan obsessively repeating themes and loading up on bland instrumentals. But Beet, Maize & Corn is The High Llamas' best since 1996's frothy, visionary Hawaii, and it mirrors that record's adherence to an emotional arc built of fragments, sketches, and vamps. It still sounds like a High Llamas record, full of muted trombone, staccato strings, acoustic guitar, and spacey organ, but O'Hagan's excursions into remixes and dance tracks have taught him how much he can do without, while still getting a feeling across. Beet, Maize & Corn is more compact, and therefore more accessible, than Hawaii, with O'Hagan's lyrics reduced to impressionistic couplets along the lines of "close the gate / make the ocean wait" and "autumn spills / on palace hills." The latter snippet comes from "The Click And The Fizz," which typifies the record, with its string fanfare and hushed acoustic body. It's a folk song blown gently through exotic resorts, flavored by the wide world but fundamentally homebound.