Here Come The Rattling Trees is the first music released under The High Llamas name in five years but wasn’t originally conceived as an album in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a series of short, interlinked musical narratives centred around the south-east London enclave of Peckham and its inhabitants. One of those people is The High Llamas’ front man and major creative force Sean O’Hagan, and he puts his experiences of living in the area to direct use on the band’s latest album.
Written primarily as a performance piece for theatre (it was premiered over seven nights in a small Covent Garden venue back in 2014) it tells the story of central character Amy and the different people she interacts with whilst living in Peckham. The spoken word parts relayed on stage by actors in the London shows don’t feature on the album, which possibly reduces the overall narrative strength, but there’s still a strong feeling of storytelling running through the album (even if the music seems a little distanced and removed from the urban bustle of real life Peckham). Importantly, the short musical interludes and instrumentals on the album (always a well-represented presence throughout The High Llamas’ back catalogue) contribute just as much to this as those songs featuring O’Hagan’s vocals.
Musically, it blends immediately familiar, trusted sounds. Soft nylon guitar is laid over delicate touches of marimba, meandering synth lines give way to discreet changes of pace and direction. Melodic motifs are replicated and modified and themes recur, overlap and interweave. The title track is cut from prime High Llamas cloth and perfectly encapsulates the augmented simplicity and idyllic serenity that have come to define their music.
The last time we heard from The High Llamas was back in 2011 on the quietly acclaimed Talahomi Way, and a similar sense of precise craft and meticulous implementation runs through Here Comes The Rattling Trees. It offers clear evidence of why, in the intervening years, O’Hagan has been called upon to provide string arrangements for the likes of The Charlatans, Paul Weller and Gruff Rhys. It also sees the exquisite sounds found all too fleetingly on last year’s excellent Other Voices collaboration with The Advisory Circle’s Jon Brooks happily extended. This EP also offered proof of how surreptitiously influential O’Hagan has been over the years – providing a partly concealed link to the artists and bands grouped under the Hauntology genre (especially those on the excellent Ghost Box label).
Some characters in the stories are named, others are referred to by their occupation or actions – there’s one moment where O’Hagan assumes the role of a plumber and sings of how “room by room I fit the taps that glisten, I work and listen”. It’s lines like this that show how it is an album that revels in the quotidian, the personal and the minutial. Musically, it portrays its subject matter with humility and modesty. There’s also a warm, beautiful inner-logic and pleasing sequential coherence to it all (Bramble Back even reprises the band’s previous toe-dipping into the world of muted tropicalia).
Any concerns that it might be a fragmented or lightweight proposition due to the album’s origins or the number of sub-30 second tracks should be swiftly dismissed. This is a quietly ambitious and exciting installment in the history of a band who may be happy (or possibly even destined) to remain under the radar but deserve something far, far greater.