High Llamas Hey Panda 1000

The High Llamas – Hey Panda (Drag City Inc)

There’s a common expectation that when you reach a certain age in life, you become stuck in your ways. From a music angle, you might become stubborn at ignoring evolving modern trends, exclusively listening to what hit your peak music interest. For 65-year-old Irishman Sean O’Hagan and his The High Llamas, this is even more expected, when you consider that this group had previously released ten albums since 1992 that have been influenced the 1960s and The Beach Boys specifically. However, O’Hagan and his London based bandmates (bassist Jon Fell, drummer Rob Allum, keyboardist Marcus Holdaway, vibraphonist Dominic Murcott and guitar Pete Aves) aim to break this neophobic misconception with the production of new rejuvenated release Hey Panda.

Sparked by the R&B sounds that Sean O’Hagan’s children have played to him, as well as his passion for J Dilla – highly influential producer in the hip hop scene for his approach to samples and drumming – Hey Panda is a playful, occasionally silly – if at times mindboggling – celebration of the imagination of modern minds, while still keeping O’Hagan’s soft easy listening vocals, soothing Sébastian Tellier lounge air and the Irish musician’s preoccupation with animals.

Listening to Hey Panda could envision a nursery school teacher telling stories to infants accompanied by puppet-waving female teaching assistants. In the case of The High Llamas’ 11th album, the assistants being already-The High Llamas-fan Rae Morris and Sean O’Hagan’s own daughter Livvy O’Hagan. The latter provides non-lexical vocables (“doo-doo-doo-doo”) to contribute to the feather-light buoyancy of title track Hey Panda, a song that introduces O’Hagan’s fondness for today’s pop culture, as it is a nod to a video from Tiktok in which a panda chomps loudly on a carrot. “The carrots look fresh. The crack of the bite. Could shatter the night”. Straight from the off we are made accustomed to the Irish musician’s use of autotune. Although on that particular track it duets with O’Hagan’s regular organic vocals and adds to the wobbly surrealness to the child-like fantasy of the tale.

Autotune is also used more prominently on the mellow ‘La Masse’ and ‘Toriafan’, a track that’s off-kilter twists and turns can be to keep up with – although this might be to represent the content, as it’s about O’Hagan’s dyslexia.  Nonetheless it’s dreamy violin and quartet collaboration with the aforementioned Livvy and Rae Morris, along with art pop producer and songwriter Fryars make a delightful listen in parts.

Another technique used on Hey Panda to make the record sound contemporary is the glitchy and sticky trap beats. ‘How The Best Was Won’ features this technique, as well as being one out of two tracks to team up with Kentucky country musician Bonnie Prince Billy. Through the style of music and innocent simplistic words spoken, it sounds like Sesame Street for generation alpha. “Listen to the sounds of the birds, listen to the squeal if the pigs.”

‘Sister Friends’ is sung mostly by Rae Morris and is one of the highlights of Hey Panda for how it narrates an evocative journey of a homeless man, whom survives by playing the Japanese flute instrument shakuhachi (it’s a shame it doesn’t feature on the track though) and his dog for company. Beginning with peaceful piano it evolves into typical The High Llamas wayward time signatures and erratic electronics, as Morris sings with an Emiliana Torrini sense of wonder: “Made it in Osaka. Play it to the strangers who pass and pray and prey on their folks / Set out on a journey, took it to the island where time doesn’t change, where stuff stays the same.” A worthy entry to a fresh-thinking album that proves you can teach an old dog – but in this case a carrot-eating panda – new tricks.







God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.