Llamas, Losers: Yesterday Once More … Godspeed You Black Emperor!: The Insiders

Llamas, Losers: Yesterday Once More

When Brian Wilson played a number of dates in the New York area a few months ago, there was surprisingly little coverage. Perhaps that’s because there are so many people doing Mr. Wilson these days that the eternally beached boy can’t really compete.

Sean O’Hagan is one of the guys out there making sure that there are plenty of pet sounds to go around. So devoted is Mr. O’Hagan to the chord structure of “Cabin-essence,” and other works of Mr. Wilson’s borderline-breakdown oeuvre , that it is impossible not to bring up the Beach Boy when discussing Mr. O’Hagan’s group, the High Llamas. I suspect this topic is raised often enough that Mr. O’Hagan grits his teeth as he peruses his notices. I’m certain that, at the very least, he reads his notices. Mr. O’Hagan, a longtime associate of the Stereolab salon, is a former music critic, and as the High Llamas’ latest album, Buzzle Bee (Drag City), shows, one with an omnivorous knowledge of pre-rap melodic styles. Mr. O’Hagan not only knows how to successfully mimic the Beach Boys’ early- 70′s attempts at getting with the times, he’s also great at channeling everyone from Phil Spector to the Knack. Supertramp, too.

And though these influences might seem to have little to do with one another, Mr. O’Hagan has nimbly spliced them together in a way that gives Buzzle Bee an otherworldly, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it vibe. The search for perfect pop can be a depressing enterprise–or at the very least, a descent into sticky-sweet nostalgia. But, like Stereolab at its best, Mr. O’Hagan manages to make the old avant again.

This is one of the few records I’ve heard where I wish that more money had been spent on its production. One could imagine songs such as the typically inscrutable “Get into the Galley Shop” with horn sections piling over cellos as the chorus goes on forever à la the Electric Light Orchestra. I rather like the vintage synthesizer squiggles that buzzle through the corners of the album, and don’t mind the almost-progressive-rock suite that is aptly entitled “New Broadway,” but this man needs an orchestra to hang himself with, just as Mr. Wilson did.

Mr. O’Hagan seems to have come to terms with some of the less hip aspects of his psyche by stewing them into a gumbo, as he does on the instrumental “Sleeping Spray,” where vibes-driven Wilsonesque chord changes meld with Serge Gainsbourg-style thumbed bass, Carpenters-issue pedal-steel guitar and a flurry of subsections that would win Burt Bacharach an ASCAP award. If it were 1969.

Another admission of geekdom is the sort of affectionate mockery that won’t allow the artist or the listener to take sides. There’s a lot of that on Simply Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad About the Loser’s Lounge (Zilcho Records). Keyboardist Joe McGinty’s live Loser’s Lounge tribute nights, which have been at Fez on Lafayette and Great Jones Streets for a few years now, are a postmodern homage to the days of Brill Building glory, when the same five session guys played on every song and Carole King still had her hair in a bob. Mr. McGinty and Co. are also not above eviscerating the canon, so embarrassed are they that Abba’s “The Name of the Game” or Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” means more to them than what might be considered more serious cultural landmarks.

The cover of the album features a Jack Davis-style illustration of the Lounge’s tributees–shows are built around a single artist and have included Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson and the Kinks–angrily chasing a smiling McGinty. That sounds about right. It’s a very ol’ timey Hoboken- hipster attitude, a most grudging sort of love–but not a dishonest one–and it keeps the Losers under the glittering backdrop of Fez rather than lodged with the pathetic Zappa tribute bands at the Bottom Line. Or worse, the mummies at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The campiness is somewhat necessary, as most of the singers backed by Mr. McGinty’s band, the Kustard Kings, aren’t exactly Darlene Love, and a few aren’t even Richard Harris. Listening to Justin Bond’s drag-queen evisceration of Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” on these live sessions, one suspects one really had to be there; not only to get off on the general joie de vivre (or lack of it), but also to hear the entire Nilsson tribute and, thus, place this hit throwaway in the context of Nilsson’s entire bizarro career. Then again, if you really love a song, you shouldn’t let a drag queen sing it.

But the pressure of just trying to get it right in front of the Kings’ immaculate session musicianship can also re-invigorate the intensity of songs that originally worked in spite of (or because of) their ridiculousness, such as Joe Budenholzer’s take on the aforementioned “Holly Holy” or Kustard King guitarist David Terhune’s performance of Donovan’s “Epistle to Dippy.” It can also bring a new audience to a canon worth reconsidering, which is what seems to be happening on Tony Zajkowski’s take on the Carole King-Maurice Sendak collaboration, “Pierre.” The version isn’t great art, but the children’s song–about a boy who learns to care after being eaten by a lion–has the whole audience singing “I don’t care” in a way that suggests they’ll be digging albums out of their parents’ attics in the near future.

Perhaps the Kustard Kings regret that the songcraft they love to celebrate has been superseded over the last 30 years by riffs, beats and sonics. Perhaps their mocking tone is a sign that they’re embarrassed a bit by their reactionary tastes. They certainly don’t attempt to reinvent the wheel the way the High Llamas do. But, as the moral of “Pierre” informs us, at least they care.

–D. Strauss

Godspeed You Black Emperor!: The Insiders

“Heal Thyself” read the message, painted in red, on the grille of one of the amplifiers that had been set up on the cramped stage of the Bowery Ballroom on Dec. 6. The amp belonged to Godspeed You Black Emperor!, a Montreal-based band with a sound as big, unruly and memorable as its name.

Just in terms of its sound, GYBE! walks a crooked line between ambitious and pretentious. Its cast of up to 10 members includes a cellist, a violinist and two drummers. But things are even more complicated than that. The electric bassist and the glockenspiel player sometimes use a violin bow. In at least one song, the guitarist frets with a screwdriver. The only vocals are occasional looped samples, such as a woman saying over and over again: “It’s the predominant question … how do I do what’s right?”, or what appears to be the recorded speech of a loopy evangelist saying, at one point: “When you penetrate to the Most High God, you will believe you’re mad. “

The average GYBE! song has no official name (although segments or movements within each track carry unwieldy titles such as “Cancer Towers on Holy Road Hi-Way”), lasts 20 minutes and pounds out variations on the same riff over and over and over again. You may hear a strain from one of Henryk Górecki’s symphonies, or what appears to be an original ode to Pink Floyd (“Tazer Floyd”). The compositions tend to be set in weird time signatures: sevens, maybe, or nines, or both.

On paper, it sounds like pompous art-student noodling, but don’t be dissuaded. GYBE!’s music is so heartfelt, so cosmic, so unironically religious, that it’s like listening to a series of industrial-strength mantras: Live or on disc, Godspeed You Black Emperor! don’t so much turn their audiences on as turn them inward.

On Dec. 5 through 7, nine members of the collective played a sold-out run at the Bowery Ballroom behind the release of their latest release, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Kranky). The album is decidedly less dirgelike than its full-length predecessor, 1998′s F#a#* ; it even has a short, jokey-folky vocal section on the last track: “Every time my baby grins, / give my baby a bottle of gin.”

For the most part, though, the band sticks to their old modus operandi on Lift Your Skinny Fists : long, sophisticated, agonizing yet beautiful sonic tapestries; the kind of songs Jesus would write if he came back as an indie rocker.

The first of only four tracks on this double-album begins with a sweet progression on the glockenspiel over droning horns. Different instruments slip in surreptitiously, except when the occasional guitar twangs an unexpected, but welcome, blue note. As the violin and cello brighten the color once more, a lone snare drum takes over the pulse. The sound grows and grows until it culminates in a wall of sound that crumbles with a single, unified punch from every instrument at once. Then, from nothing, a new wall rises built on a foundation of acoustic-guitar plinks and cello drone. It ends with the recorded loop of a woman saying: “Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini-Market. We would like to advise our customers that any individual who offers to pump gas, wash windows or solicit products is not employed by or associated with this facility …. Welcome to Arco AM/PM Mini-Market …. “

The sound is so massive that even as the figures repeat themselves, you can identify different concurrent melodies. Sometimes a tune made entirely of overtones surfaces and takes the melody in an unexpected direction. On the other hand, with three of the four tracks clocking in at over 20 minutes, the repetitive patterns can get boring–especially if you’re not listening to the album on dope.

But live at the Bowery Ballroom on Dec. 6, Godspeed You Black Emperor! was as captivating as a cult. The orchestration was tight even though the bandmembers rarely looked at one another, and it was impossible to tell who was cueing whom. Three of the group’s members spent the whole concert with their backs to the audience, staring at a film strip that flashed random city scenes and occasional Psalm references (“Is it true that children will lead the world?”) on the wall behind the drum kits. Everyone seemed to be in his own little world.

That went for the audience, too. The unending pulse hypnotized even as it changed pace. It washed over the crowd and left them calm and cleansed (if a little sweaty). Halfway through the show on Dec. 6, during a soft moment, someone behind us whispered, “Listen to how quiet the audience is!” No one was making a sound. They had gone inside, to a place where the amplifier’s message made perfect sense .

–Ian Blecher

Contact Manhattan Music at fdigiacomo @observer.com