Discussing the inspiration for ‘Hey Panda’, High Llama’s songwriter/arranger Sean O’Hagan stated, “We live in the finest non- judgemental musical times where the legacies of soul, jazz and lo fi indie have produced a hybrid of generous and stunning creativity. I want Hey Panda to be of this generation.” How refreshing it is to hear such an acknowledgement from a 64-year-old man. There is none of the tiresome shouting for ‘authentic’, heritage music that accompanies, say, the announcement of the latest Glastonbury headliners. Rather than looking backwards, ‘Hey Panda’ sees High Llamas triumphantly hop into new waters. From his earliest work in the 1980s with Microdisney, O’Hagan has been blessed with a gift for melody with was emphasised further when he formed the High Llamas and their first recordings emphasised their power pop credentials. They soon moved into Brian Wilson/ Van Dyke Parks territory, whose music in the mid-late 60s utilised the most cutting-edge production techniques of the time which can be seen as the forerunner of modern slicing, dicing and mutating to emphasise the song’s melodic qualities.

This combination of modern production styles brings the melodies to life as exemplified on the album’s opening title track. From its opening command to “put on your dancing shoes”, the song is infectious. It references O’Hagan’s lockdown fandom of a panda bear on TikTok that was known for eating giant carrots and the song has a cartoonish quality in its mix of loops, disjointed rhythms and compelling melody.

There is a constant wrong-footing and unpredictability within songs, exemplified by how ‘Fall Off The Mountain’ could be a fusion of two songs, switching between the subdued and resigned title part and an ecstatic R’n’B groove. ‘Bade Amey’ manages to mingle space age and Latin music while being full of traditional High Llama tempo changes.

One of the album’s absolute highlights is ‘Sisters Friends’ which starts with a seductive piano melody before guest Rae Morris’s lead vocals give it a folk meets gospel air. Hyperactive musical turns add vibrant colour to the song which traces the journey of a homeless man who makes a living playing a Japanese instrument called the Shakuhachi and his dog from London to the Isle of Wight.

There are two songwriting collaborations with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie who bonded with O’Hagan over their mutual love of gospel soul. The vocal manipulation and rhythmic changes of ‘How The Best Was One’ gives his voice an entirely new quality. There is a brief hint of ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ to ‘Hungriest Man’’s melody before the production whisks it into a revitalised state over the course of its five minutes, by far the album’s longest song.

‘Yoga Goat’ could be the title track’s adoptive sibling, starting with a relaxed, jazzy Steely Dan style vibe before bursting into a kaleidoscopic, cartoonish glitter rush. Most bands creating a groove as enticing as that of ‘Stone Cold Slow’ would hammer away relentlessly at it but High Llamas choose to drift into more ambient directions. In many ways, it is an ADHD record, although ‘Toriafan’ is about different learning struggles being a song about acquiring knowledge through action, speaking to those with dyslexia and reflecting O’Hagan’s struggles at school. It could be the cast of Sesame Street collaborating with Dorothy Ashby.

There is a melodic warmth to the laidback grooves of ‘The Water Moves’ while the album concludes with producer Fryars slicing and reforming the melody of ‘La Masse’.

At times. ‘Hey Panda’ shares the Dirty Projectors’ capacity to ally their indie background and melodic sensibility with R’n’B production to create a refreshing new sound. It is a triumph of mixing disparate styles, a love letter to J Dilla and Tyler the Creator composed by ‘Pet Sounds’ era Beach Boys.

High Llamas: Hey Panda – Out 29th March 2024 (Drag City)

Llamas “Sisters Friends” [feat. Rae Morris] (Official Music Video) (youtube.com)

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.