As an odd signature of recognition, to know Stereolab is to know the High Llamas. Fact is, since Sean O'Hagan (the main man behind the High Llamas) has been working more and more with Stereolab, the two bands' sounds have come ever closer. The key difference between the two groups, however, lies in the pace of the songs. Stereolab clearly aims for an upbeat, pop-retro blend while the High Llamas continually seek to melodically yet more sedately pay homage to composers of the past. (Also, with his own records, O'Hagan has the opportunity to exercise his talent with lyric and vocal duties.)
While the Llamas last record, Cold and Bouncy, seemed more of a programming trick, Snowbug, the fifth record since the group's 1991 inception, sets itself apart by further integrating the live studio. The band has picked up on a sort of backward trend currently on the agenda of many established music makers, that of reversing the reliance on studio machinery. The difference is noted in fewer electronic loops and dissonant passages. The live element brightens up the recording as a whole, with an abundance of evidence on such songs as "Green Coaster" and "Cookie Bay" (the latter featuring vocals from Stereolab's Laetitia and Mary).
Oddly, by the time the record is finished, Snowbug seems to exist on two separate planes: As a Stereolab adjunct project, but also, with its intricate arrangements and lesser reliance on programmed effects, it's perhaps more properly compared to the work of Burt Bacharach.
Either way, you've got a record that contains the proper combination of hailed retro and kitschy current pop sounds to remain interesting well into the future.
Liz Copeland writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.