Onetime New Musical Express journalist Sean O’Hagan was half of the creative core of the Irish combo Microdisney, which at its best mixed lush melodicism with biting, politically charged lyrical venom. While ex-partner Cathal Coughlan went on to explore aggression and chaos with Fatima Mansions, O’Hagan opted to luxuriate in melody, first as a solo artist on High Llamas and then with the band bearing that album’s name.
The charmingly whimsical High Llamas is lightweight and pleasant, with intriguing lyrics but an underdeveloped musical personality. By the time O’Hagan and his cohorts (keyboardist Marcus Holdaway, bassist John Fell, drummer Rob Allum) recorded the mini-magnum opus Gideon Gaye, they’d arrived at a distinctive approach, informed by Smile-era Beach Boys and Sgt. Pepper-vintage Britpop. The result is a homespun, heartfelt art-pop masterpiece, with airy arrangements and gorgeous melodies in richly detailed tunes — “The Dutchman,” “Checking In, Checking Out,” “The Goat Looks On” and the fourteen-minute “Track Goes By” — that liberally quote Brian Wilson’s lost classic without sacrificing O’Hagan’s purposefully playful point of view. (Apricots, the British EP on which the High Llamas made their debut, was expanded to full-length and issued in France as Santa Barbara. The Delmore and Epic issues of Gideon Gaye are identical save for the artwork.)
The 77-minute, 29-track Hawaii is a gentle, leisurely mood piece that’s simultaneously expansive and intimate, packing in even more vintage Brian Wilson references (not only in the subtly imaginative arrangements but also the title and cover art) while simultaneously carving out a distinctive melodic and lyrical identity of its own. Though the songs are less obviously catchy than on Gideon Gaye, O’Hagan’s inventively derivative method really emerges as a cohesive (if sprawling) personal voice.
O’Hagan has lately split his musical efforts between leading the High Llamas and working as an auxiliary member of Stereolab.