High Llamas / Low / Magnetic Fields / Tramps, April 9, 1998
Pleasantly charming lightweight art-pop rarely gets any more intimate and mesmerizing than this wonderfully adorned triple bill on a rainy Thursday evening at Tramps. The well-balanced lineup of sure-footed underground musicians made sure the audience went away both relaxed and pleased. Several fans left before the High Llamas finished, but that was mainly because they were ultimately satisfied and probably tired (the headliners played for more than 80 minutes) instead of disinterested.
High Llamas whimsically morphed psychedelia, exotica, and cheesy pop into thriftily dulcet morsels. It’s as if these Londoners make music for an enchanted island that doesn’t exist. Imaginatively borrowing dramatic spaghetti Western motifs reminiscent of “Wichita Lineman” or “Midnight Cowboy,” along with espionage themes suited for James Bond flicks, singer/ multi-instrumentalist Sean O’Hagan’s troupe handled stylistically diverse, well-crafted material (most from the newly waxed Cold And Bouncy) with casual aplomb. While it’s not unfair to compare some of O’Hagan’s early compositions to Pet Sounds/ Smile-era Beach Boys, precarious melodies subconsciously lifted from Electric Light Orchestra, Steely Dan, soft-Jazz creampuff Michael Franks, and less obvious sources also seemed to pop up for brief intervals. But there’s no denying the widespread appeal of the High Llamas eclectic blend. Marcus Holdaway’s keyboards, Dominic Murcott’s vibes and shakers, John Bennett’s guitar, Rob Allum’s percussion, and John Fell’s bass peppered the expansive arrangements quite succinctly.
Duluth slow-core purveyors, Low, began their somber, sometimes seductive, set unobtrusively (never even mentioning their perfectly suited moniker). They first delivered a subtly hypnotizing spiritual that prepared the still-gabbing-like-it‘s-intermission audience for its narcotic transience. Guest Ida Pearl draped heavily amped violin glissando across coiled guitar riffs on one song while droning, lingering organ gave another the buzzing restraint of lighter Yo La Tengo fare. The trio continued to anesthetize the packed crowd with a dirge-y instrumental that headed into the abyss. Much like the Cowboy Junkies, Low put the lull back in lullaby without getting laborious.
Manhattan-based Magnetic Fields’ vulnerable romanticist Stephin Merritt seamlessly weaves his velvety voice through electric and acoustic guitars and bowed upright bass, leisurely strolling through his plain and simple pop tunes with graceful splendor. The stimulating “Strange Powers closed the set with gorgeous subliminal imagery.
Unlike most shows, this evenly matched tripleheader could have just as easily been inverted and nobody would have blinked. Those with insomnia left Tramps to finally get a restful night’s sleep.