Somehow someway, Sean O’Hagan’s songwriting continues to grow ever more breezy and elegant with each passing release. The High Llamas’ latest, Here Come the Rattling Trees, is an unhurried and observant highlight among his output of recent years.
Now that O’Hagan and his baroque indie pop cohort are thirteen albums deep, it’s a couple spins shy of disorienting to revisit the Crowded House-isms of their 1992 breakthrough, Santa Barbara. The High Llamas we’ve known since then essentially re-booted with their 1995 follow-up, Gideon Gaye, and, autumnal and reflective as their music can be, they haven’t done much looking back since. On the surface, Here Come the Rattling Trees is easier than a Sunday morning, but O’Hagan arranged a unique set of guidelines for himself en route to its creation.
Specifically, he decided that before he could release anything new, the material would first have to come to life in theatre. Here Come the Rattling Trees is not a stand-alone album, but ‘music from the original stage production’, which was performed in 2014 at both the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden and the Montpelier Theatre pub in O’Hagan’s stomping ground, Peckham. Briskly brushed drums, cobblestone-stepping guitar strokes, and pastel keyboard and vibraphone accents fill in the story of Peckham-based publicist Amy, who learns about the history and character of the district through interactions with five of its citizens.
Absent any actors to push the narrative along, Here Come the Rattling Trees can drift by during its more passive instrumental passages, but never less than pleasantly so. Most satisfying are the moments when he lends his voice to tunes like the title track, “McKain James”, and the swaying closer “Jackie”, imparting a vision of his increasingly popular environs with a kind of sentimental realism.