The High Llamas
Led by part-time Stereolaber Sean O'Hagen, the High Llamas have put out three very similar albums that establish their place as Stereolab's less-adventurous little brother. On most of Snowbug, O'Hagen even spares us his fragile, adolescent croonings for the more pert—but still fittingly ethereal—voices of Mary Hansen and Laetitia Sadier (both of O'Hagen's full-time band). Everything on Snowbug is calming and charming, almost to a fault. The best tracks ("Hoops Hooley," "The American Scene" and "Green Coaster") sound most like Stereolab, and O'Hagen won't ever shake the Brian Wilson comparisons if he keeps writing songs like "Go to Montecito." The Llamas use congas, steel drums, vibes and more rhythm instruments than I can identify and still can't come up with a beat worth bobbing along to. The melodies, too, are subtle; a tinkling vibraphone or a woozily effected organ are the closest things you'll get to hooks. But before you go dismissing Snowbug as elevator music posing as art, you should know that O'Hagen not only writes like his mentors, but he also shares their knack for making pop with a curious, exotic soul. Just make sure you've had your coffee before you spin it. (Michael Coyle)
SYR 4: Goodbye 20th Century
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Sonic Youth started up their own little label, SYR, a few years back to release material their major label wouldn't touch. SYR 4: Goodbye 20th Century is their latest on the imprint, a two-CD, 100-minute glimpse of the band jamming in the studio. Well, that's what it sounds like, anyway. The truth is that these 13 tracks are interpretations of modern composers' pieces, done with the Sonic Youth 'tude that a guitar can sound like anything. Many of these "songs" are simply dark, creepy collections of noises with no real apparent method, just madness—except for the few seconds of silence between each. "Burdocks," written by Christian Wolff, sounds like someone playing an evil, industrial video game as bells, sickly guitar moans and myriad noises go off over a haunting violin. The randomness of this is the album's novelty; even Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore's daughter gets to scream her little lungs out and call it a song (on a reworking of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano"). But the novelty wears off when songs like "Pendulum Music" —which sounds like someone stuck a microphone up to a squeaky hinge and opened and closed it for five and a half minutes—do nothing but annoy. To most, that's all SYR 4 will ever be—annoying and wholly unfathomable. But to faithful Sonic Youth fans, this is the concentrated version of their beautifully fucked-up art-rock side that pops up every now and then ever since way back in their beatnik-punk Evol days. (MC)