The High Lamas

Band members                             Related acts

  line up 1 (1992-93)

- Rob Allum -- drums, percussion

- John Fell -- bass

- Marcus Holdaway -- keyboards

- Sean O'Hagan -- vocals, guitar, keyboards

- Anita Visser -- vocals


  line up 2 (1993)

- Rob Allum -- drums, percussion

- John Fell -- bass

- Marcus Holdaway -- keyboards

- Sean O'Hagan -- vocals, guitar, keyboards


  line up 3 (1994-98)

- Rob Allum -- drums, percussion

NEW - John Bennett -- guitar

- John Fell -- bass

- Marcus Holdaway -- keyboards

- Sean O'Hagan -- vocals, guitar, keyboards


  line up 4 (1998-2000)

- Rob Allum -- drums, percussion

- John Fell -- bass

- Marcus Holdaway -- keyboards

- Sean O'Hagan -- vocals, guitar, keyboards


  line up 5 (2000-)

- Rob Allum -- drums, percussion

NEW - Pete Aves -- acoustic guitar

- John Fell -- bass

- Marcus Holdaway -- keyboards

- Sean O'Hagan -- vocals, guitar, keyboards


  backing musicians (2002)

- Emma Carter -- backing vocals

- Fulton Dingley -- electronic sound effects

- Mary Hanson -- vocals, backing vocals

- Jo Haynes -- backing vocals

- Susan James -- backing vocals

- Kelsey Michael -- backing vocals

- Dominic Murcott -- vibes, marimba

- Andy Ramsay -- synthesizers

- John Telfer -- sax, flute


  backing musicians (2007)

- Sylvie Arthur -- backing vocals

- Winnie Asmah -- backing vocals

- Tania Degate -- backing vocals

- Kelsie Michael -- backing vocals

- Jackie Norrie -- backing vocals


  line up x (2011)

- Rob Allum -- drums, percussion

- Pete Aves -- guitar

NEW - Jon Fell -- bass, percussion (replaced John Bennett)

- Marcus Holdaway -- keyboards

- Dominic Murcott -- vibes 

- Sean O'Hagan -- vocals, guitar, keyboards




- Lightening Seeds (Rob Allum)

- Microdisney (Sean O'Hagan)

- Palace Brothers

- Stereolab (Sean O'Hagan)

- Turin Brakes (Rob Allum)





Genre: pop

Rating: 3 stars ***

Title:  Drag City

Company: DC 191

Catalog: DS 33-28

Country/State: US

Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+

Comments: --

Available: 1

Catalog ID: 3503

Price: $50.00


As their sixth studio album, 2002's "Buzzle Bee" was the first High Llamas collection to score inconsistent reviews.  Nah, it was more than that.  Some folks actually trashed the album.  To my ears the album wasn't all that different than the predecessors. With Sean O'Hagan again responsible for all of the material, their patented sound remained firmly in place.  Maybe a little flatter than the last couple of releases, but exemplified by selections like 'Get Into the Galley Shop' the Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys influences remained firmly intact.  Admittedly there were some differences this time around.  'The Passing Bell' and 'Tambourine Day' sounded like O'Hagan and company had been listening to some Free Design.  The other major difference came via the inclusion of three extended instrumentals.   'Pat Mingus' and 'Switch Pavillion' remained true to the band's affection for MOR-ish pop, but there was a bit of experimentation in the mix, with producer Fulton Digley credited with "electronic bits and pieces". The high proportion of instrumentals combined with their streamlined sound (what happened to the string arrangements), made it what a hardcore fan might deem a "transitional" album.  


"Buzzle Bee" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) The Passing Bell  (Sean O'Hagan) - 6:30   rating: **** stars

If you've ever heard the Dedrick clan (better known as The Free Design), there's a strong chance 'The Passing Bell' will sound somewhat familiar to you.  Like the best of The Free Design, this song managed to combine a beautiful, if MOR-ish melody with a lyric that seemed to be composed mostly of la-la-las, and a charming, low-keyed O'Hagan vocal. Admittedly, having listened to the album dozens of times, I'll be darned if I have a clue what the song was about.

2.) Pat Mingus (instrumental)  (Sean O'Hagan) - 4:26   rating: ** stars

The first of xxx instrumentals, 'Pat Mingus' was pretty enough, but kind of sounded like incidental music for some "B" grade porn flick.  Not sure what the freak-out middle section of the song was about.  Dominic Murcott featured on vibraphone.

3.) Get Into the Galley Shop  (Sean O'Hagan) - 4:39   rating: **** stars

If you ever wanted to get a taste of the band's famed affection for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, then the glistening 'Get Into the Galley Shop' would be a great place to start.  The comparisons are impossible to overlook.  Good thing O'Hagan and Wilson were on good terms, or they could have been sued for plagiarism.  Lyrically the song was incomprehensible, but he track had an interesting stereo mix with the drums on one side and organ, acoustic guitar and other instruments on the other side.  Strange, but soothing and hypnotic.

4.) Switch Pavillion (instrumental)  (Sean O'Hagan) - 4:28  rating: *** stars

The instrumental 'Switch Pavillion' sounded like and incomplete song fragment/demo than a finished product.  Again, the breezy melody was quite attractive, but you were left to wonder what could have been had they finished the track.


(side 2)

1.) Tambourine Day  (Sean O'Hagan) -3:36  rating: *** stars

The breezy 'Tambourine Day' was another track that reminded me of The Free Design.  Mary Hansen shared lead vocals with O'Hagan ...

2.) Sleeping Spray (instrumental)  (Sean O'Hagan) - 5:06   rating: ** stars

The instrumental 'Sleeping Spray' was the first real disappointment.  This one could have been a toothpaste commercial.   

3.) New Broadway  (Sean O'Hagan) - 5:12   rating: ** stars

Oh oh - more la-la-las ... 'New Broadway' was an aural mess.  The song literally sounded like it had been stapled together from leftover song fragments.  Yeah, somewhere in this jumble there was a good song struggling to assert itself, but every time it got a little steam going, there was a change in direction.

4.) Bobby's Court  (Sean O'Hagan) -5:55   rating: **** stars

Luckily, just as you were about to give up on this High Llamas outing, the closer 'Bobby's Court' restored your faith in O'Hagan's talents.   A dreamy, beguiling, folk-tinged number, I don't have a friggin' clue what it was about, but after all these years Marcus Holdaway's five note keyboard riff continues to pop into my head at unexpected moments.





Genre: pop

Rating: 4 stars ****

Title:  Can Cladders

Company: Drag City

Catalog: DC317

Country/State: UK

Grade (cover/record): NM/NM

Comments: sealed

Available: 1

Catalog ID: 251

Price: $50.00


Best time to play:  rainy Sunday mornings when you need a bit of light in your life


Occasionally I get an email complaining about something I've written.  Typically it'll be a band member, band member relative, or hardcore fan berating me for something critical I've said about a song, or a beloved band.  Occasionally it's someone unhappy with the asking price for an album.  And then recently I got an email taking me to task for never reviewing newer bands.  I was initially taken aback because I buy new music on a regular basis.  Needless to say, I was surprised to discover the critic was right.  Of the thousands of reviews I've put online, the vast bulk focus on '60s - '80s releases.  So with that, I'll ease into newer music with an album that sounds old ...   


So was 2007's "Can Cladders" The High Llamas' creative zenith ?  Nope.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, the first couple of times I played it, I was disappointed.  Sean O'Hagan crafted some excellent tunes here, but the overall effect wasn't as in-your-face appealing as some of the band's earlier releases.  In fact, stretched over the thirteen songs (admittedly three of the tracks were just instrumental song fragments), the collection occasionally threatened to blend together into a forgettable aural stew.  The good news was this was one of those albums that grew on you the more you played it.  A song like 'Winter's Day' initially just came and went without a lot of impact, but after a couple of weeks on my turntable  I found myself unexpectedly humming the song's hook which featured some of the coolest soul influenced female backing vocals you've ever heard (the Sweet Inspirations would be proud).  Even more insidious was 'Rollin'.  The first couple of times around it struck me as simplistic and simply dumb.  And then I found myself humming the song on the way home from work ("and we say hi to the rivers and the mountains ...").   Yeah, O'Hagan wasn't about to win a Pulitzer in the lyric department, but it was so catchy !!!   I know.  I know.  Every review draws links to Brian Wilson, but you just can't overlook the resemblance and influences.  Add in a touch of '60s pop-psych influences, a dollop of Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, and a touch of mid-'60s Beatles and its a mix that I fund fascinating.


"Can Cladders" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) The Old Spring Town  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

No matter how many times I hear 'The Old Spring Town' it reminds me of a mash-up of The Free Design overdosing on Brian Wilson songs.   Yeah, many folks will tell you it's a little too light and fluffy for their tastes, but I'll bet a significant number of those folks listen to it anyhow.  How can you not fall in love with the glistening female harmony vocals and the Farfisa organ interludes  ?   Tell you what, we'll just call it a guilty pleasure and not tell anyone ...

2.) Winter's Day  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

I don't know how many folks out there will remember Emmitt Rhodes, but 'Winter's Day' was the song Rhodes always wanted to write in his dogged pursuit of Paul McCartney-styled pop perfection.   Cloaked in a beautiful melody, O'Hagan seldom sounded as good and the soulful female harmony vocals (Sylvie Arthur, Winnie Asmah, Tania Degate, and Jackie Norrie), were simply too-die-for.   

3.) Sailing Bells  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

Anyone who doubted that earlier Free Design-meets-Brian Wilson comparison ...   listen to the sweet ballad 'Sailing Bells'.   Had anyone other than Sean O'Hagan come up with the tune and the arrangement, it would have been a total disaster.   As is, it wasn't my favorite tune, but still captured my attention.  

4.) Boing Backwards (instrumental)  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: ** stars

'Boing Backwards' was nothing more than a brief, country-tinged instrumental (banjos for goodness sake).  There wasn't even enough to the song fragment to comment on.

5.) Honeytrap  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

With a weird song structure and heavily orchestrated melody, 'Honeytrap' was one of the tracks that initially left me cold, but unveiled it's charm when given chance.  Very Free Design-ish in it's eccentric structure and '60s sound.   

6.) Bacaroo  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: ** stars

'Bacaroo' was the first outright disappointment.  The song was pretty enough, with one of those  throwaway '60s pop-psych flavors (maybe something similar to a bad Association tune), but was ultimately simply dull and forgettable.  In fact, the best thing here was  the bass line that revealed itself at the very end of the song.  


(side 2)

1.) Can Cladders  (Sean O'Hagan) -     rating: **** stars

I have no idea what the song's about, but with it's breezy, MOR-ish 60s feel, it's always reminded me of something Burt Bacharach and Hal David might have written had someone spiked one of their cocktail hours.  A slow, slightly acid-tinged ballad, it had some gorgeous harmony vocals, nice orchestration, a great acoustic guitar solo, and a super high hummable factor ...  It also had some of the best "la la la's" in pop music.     

2.) Something About Paper (instrumental)  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

The second instrumental song fragment, 'Something About Paper' was also the album's hardest rockin' riff.  Shame they didn't finish the song.   

3.) Clarion Union Hall  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

'Clarion Union Hall' found the band swerving back into Free Design-meets-Brian Wilson territory with an interesting, slightly discordant feel.  Darn those harmony vocals were amazing.  

4.) Cove Cutter (Hills and Fields)  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

O'Hagan's lyrics are normally a puzzle to me and that's certainly the case for The Beach Boys-styled 'Cove Cutter (Hills and Fields)'.  Doctors, cures, Caribbean, treasures ... what's it all mean ?   Maybe it doesn't matter given the song's beautiful melody and those cool bass voices.   

-5.) Dorothy Ashby  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

'm guessing the late jazz harp player Dorothy Ashby (seriously, I'm not making this up) was the inspiration for O'Hagan and company.  That said, I guess the harp is what pushed 'Dorothy Ashby' over into the 'fey' category for me.  The song is pretty enough and Rob Allum's low--tech percussion gave it a somewhat hypnotic feel, but the song's always reminded me of Andy Partridge and XTC trying to get their Beatles fixation out of their system.   

6.) Rollin'  (Sean O'Hagan) -     rating: **** stars

As much as I fought to dislike 'Rollin'' the song's sweet, innocent disposition, wonderful melody, and dazzling vocal arrangement ultimately won over my heart and ears.  One of those songs that I'll occasionally find myself humming "we said hi to the rivers and the mountains ...". 

7.) Summer Seen (instrumental)  (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

'Summer Seen' ended the album with another instrumental song fragment ...  Showcasing Dominic Murcott's vibes it could have been one of the albums best melodies, but was basically just a throwaway riff.


Originally a three star LP, having played it dozens of times, I'll readily admit the album's subtle charms have captured my ears and my heart (and I have a vinyl copy).



And yes, The High Llamas have a web presence at:


Genre: pop

Rating: 4 stars ****

Title:  Talahomi Way

Company: Drag City

Catalog: DC469

Country/State: UK

Grade (cover/record): VG+/VG+

Comments: includes original lyric inner sleeve

Available: SOLD

Catalog ID: SOLD 766

Price: SOLD $25.00


Best time to play:  warm summer evening on the deck when the fireflies are out and the kids are in bed


It only took Sean O'Hagan and company  four years to come up with a follow-up to 2007's "Can Cladders".   The funny thing is 2011's "Talahomi Way" sounded very much like it was cut from the same sessions as the former album.   That meant if you liked The High Llamas unique, '60s retro sound, you were likely to love this collection.   On the other hand, if you were hoping for something a little different this time around, you were going to be frustrated and disappointed.  So what did that really mean ?   With O'Hagan credited with writing all twelve songs, the album may have been intended as a concept piece, though if that was the case, the plotline was lost on my ears.  Still, tracks like 'Barry Adams', 'Woven and Rolled', and 'Fly Baby, Fly' offered up a mix of "Pet Sounds" era Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, The Free Design, with occasional nods to Burt Bacharach and Hal David.   It was pop music with a '60s MOR edge and while I love all of those influences and the overall sound, after awhile it did begin to sound similar (luckily the album was very short - the whole thing clocked in around 37 minutes).   Laidback to an extreme.   Add to that O'Hagan's always eclectic lyrics (what the world was 'Woven and Rolled' about ...) and his decision to mix the lead vocals far in the background and the album had a couple of issues to talk about.   


"Talahomi Way" track listing:
(side 1)

1.) Barry Adams    (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

Geez, talk about a '60s flashback.   'Barry Adams'  literally dripped with echoes of The Free Design, The Left Banke and Brian Wilson sitting in his living room sand box ...  Beautiful, relaxing,, and very fragile ... can music be described as fey ?   

2.) Wander, Jack Wander (instrumental)   (Sean O'Hagan) -     rating: ** stars

O'Hagan's song titles have always puzzled me, and ' Wander, Jack Wander' was no exception.  A pretty, if forgettable instrumental, this one could have served as instrumental music to some mid-'60s clash-of-the-generations "B" flick.   

3.) Take My Hand   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

Geez, a stoned version of The Free Design ...   Musically and lyrically there wasn't a great deal to this one, but I have to admit that the combination of the simple melody (strumming ukele, light percussion, roller rink organ) and the title track repeated over and over and over was somehow very relaxing and beguiling.  And these guys do harmony vocals like nobody this side of The Beach Boys.

4.) Woven and Rolled   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

More a song fragment than anything, this one had a lyric that was even more mysterious than usual.   Shame, since it was one of the album's prettier melodies with a haunting keyboard figure lurking in the background.  

5.) The Ring of Gold   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

I guess you could make a career out of trying to interpret O'Hagan's lyrics - I'm guessing this one has something to do with a retired racing horse ...   but who knows.   A charming ballad with a slightly lysergic edge, this was another album highlight.   


(side 2)

1.) Talahomi Way (Angel 9)   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

O'Hagan and company go on vacation ...  sounds like a mellow trip.   Seldom heard a harmonica and harpsichord sound as restful.   Beautiful song.   

2.) Fly Baby, Fly   (Sean O'Hagan) -  rating: *** stars

Another nice example of how O'Hagan seemed to be able to effortlessly toss out melodies that may not have instantly connected with your brain, but eventually snuck in and wouldn't leave.  YouTube has a clip of the band playing the song in concert.   They're not exactly the most engaging live act I've ever seen, but they do sound good live. 

3.) Angel Connector (instrumental)   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: **** stars

Maybe because it was so different from the rest of the album, the short, funky electronica  little instrumental 'Angel Connector' was actually one of the album's cooler songs.    

4.) To the Abbey   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: ** stars

So, lots of folks tag 'To the Abbey' as one of the album highlights, but to my ears the combination of strumming acoustic guitars, xylophone, and strings was simply too MOR-ish for its own good.  

5.) A Rock In May   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

Another modest departure from the formula, 'A Rock In May' sounded like O'Hagan and company had been listening to way too much Van Dyke Parks.    

6.) Crazy Connector (instrumental)   (Sean O'Hagan) -     rating: ** stars

There wasn't much to 'Crazy Connector' as if wasn't much more that a brief instrumental segue way ...  

7.) Calling Up, Ringing Down   (Sean O'Hagan) -    rating: *** stars

Hum, O'Hagan and company discover exotica and bossa-nova moves ?   Well, at least you can actually hear Rob Allum's drums on this one.   Pretty enough, if it may make also make you drowsy.


Clearly not for everyone, and even High Llama fans may have some complaints, but if you worship at the Brian Wilson altar, then you'll probably want to track down a copy.