Here friends, we have the Llama Farmer’s DIFFICULT SECOND ALBUM, wherein they gallantly try to escape their teen-grunge envelope by attempting to produce an album that is accomplished, experimental and beautiful…
So do they succeed?
Well, yes and no.
El Toppo is certainly unique in the musical landscape of the year 2000. While every other bunch of guitar thrashing youths in the world are feeding off anger, machismo and maximum noise, it would have been a simple task for a band like the Llamas (who can do the jump-up-and-down riffage as well as any band in existence) to record an album of Nirvana-lite pop metal and propel themselves to stardom. Instead though, our heroes take the opposite direction and try to establish themselves as a genuine creative force, and for this alone they should be congratulated.
Where their peers might be influenced by RATM and Deftones, the Llama’s are playing a whole different ballgame. The sound they’ve created with El Toppo seems to be trying to emulate that classic mid-‘90s sub genre which may or may not be called “flower-grunge”. You know, all those brilliant semi-forgotten bands like Belly, Tripping Daisies and some bits of Throwing Muses .. where the razor-sharp guitar lines and shimmery (usually female) vocals rise out of a sort of opium-inspired wooziness - like the music Kurt Cobain would have made if he was in a really good mood and had learned to love synthesizers… you know what I’d getting at? No? Oh well .. anyway, El Toppo sounds like that, and is all the better for it in my opinion. While the rest of rock franticly beats its head against the fucked-upness of the world, it’s nice to see a band just sitting back and grinning at the pretty colours.
And it does indeed sound great – the guitar noise is all present and correct backed up with a wide range of samples, synths, moogs and various other silly things that make pleasing noises – it’s just plain lovely, especially on the blissed out acoustic songs like Same song and Postcards and Moonrocks.
Bernie Simpson’s lyrics fit the music perfectly, ranging from nicely off beat imagery to hilarious stoned nonsense. Choice extracts include; “the wind almost blew me to the floor / I was speaking to a man, selling newspapers by the door / on my right a huge elegant white horse galloped on by”(More Salt)_ “if you’re trying to find the friends you left when you went away / they all grew beards and play chess nearly everyday”_ (Postcards & Moonrocks)_ “I knew a boy with 24-carat gold cheeks / he lived in a hut with 4300 other freaks / one day he found a friend / his friend had an oversized head”_ (Movie) and my personal favourite;_ “I next saw you at the lost and found / sitting on a mountain of shoes / a mountain of shoes, what else would you choose? / this isn’t a love song to you / this is a railway track”_ (secret track).
What does it all mean? I like to think it means exactly what it says, and the Llama Farmers earn a lot of extra credit in my book for writing songs about interesting and silly things without being at all embarrassed about it.
This album clearly strives to greatness, and a lot of thought, effort and emotion has been put into it, and much of it has paid off, leading to a far more beautiful collection of sounds than you could rightfully expect from a gang of teenage Nirvana fans.
However, and you could probably see this coming, I’m saddened to report that El Toppo is also fatally flawed.
The problem, put simply, is the tunes. Not being a musician, I don’t know a great deal about the terminology, but there’s something pretty vital missing from the Llama’s songwriting. The only thing they seem to be able to do is riffs, riffs and more riffs .. I mean, shouldn’t there be other things like, I dunno, rhythms or middle-8s or things I don’t know the name of? And, for all the diversity of sound on the record, they just can’t hide the fact that the riff from Get The Keys and Go still sounds like the riff from Get the Keys and Go whether it’s played on a guitar, a keyboard, an antique harpsichord or a swanny whistle – and this is the album’s downfall. While they’re aiming for an album of genuine artistic merit that will attract praise and recognition from critics and commentators, their hopes are ultimately destroyed by the fact that they know fewer chords than the most hopeless redneck punk band.
So, overall, an ambitious and unpredictable album with no shortage of ideas or imagination, but sadly lacking the vital songwriting skills needed to create genuine musical genius.
They tried so hard, they deserve to succeed, dammit, but at the end of the day it’s a case of “nice try, but no cigar”.
6Ben Haggar's Score