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Published: 2002/05/22
by Michael Lello

Close To The Silence – Llama

MCA Records 088 112 588-2

It's not a matter of if Llama will be a hit. It's more a matter of when. And
after hearing their debut album, "Close to the Silence", my money is on very

Llama, a trio of Nashville natives in their early 20s, are in a unique
position, having released their debut on a major label rather than starting
off as an independent group like most jambands. While some cynics would
point to the pop polish here as the result of two slick Nashville producers
(Kenny Greenberg and Matt Rollings) sinking their claws into these
impressionable youths, there's something to be said for learning what can be – and maybe more importantly, what can't be – done in a studio at such an
early stage in a band's career. Countless jambands have spent several
albums, many years, and tons of money before they realized replicating the
live experience in the studio is generally impossible.

Llama, apparently, is a quick study in that department. In interviews, the band's members have said they understand there is a clear demarcation between the studio and the stage. The stage is a place to stretch out and push the envelope. The studio is a forum to display songwriting and performing skills, with just the right amount of improv. With the help of the four experienced ears of Greenberg and Rollings, Llama has created a pop masterpiece.

The early buzz on Llama – Ben Brown (electric guitar), Neil Mason (drums),
Ben Morton (vocals, acoustic guitar) – is as "the next Dave Matthews Band".
There is a clear DMB influence on the album, from the use of contrasting
dark verses with bright choruses, to Morton's angular, jangly acoustic
guitar and Mason's jazzy, Carter Beauford-esque drums. This young group,
though, has just as much in common with the brilliant mid-90s alterna-pop
group Chalk Farm (minor pop hit with "Lie on Lie"), Toad the Wet Sprocket
and Guster as anyone on the jam scene.

Despite occasional – very occasional – bouts with blandness, this one's a keeper. Morton asserts himself as a strong singer/songwriter with a knack for quirky catchiness, in the vein of David Gray and recent upstart John Mayer, and his bandmates provide the perfect sweet-sounding melodic bed of support for his vocals and acoustic guitar excursions. "Back Where We Began" starts off with some snare drum rim clicks a la DMB's "Rhyme and Reason" and percussive acoustic guitar – yes, also a lot like DMB – but the piano and Morton's smooth vocals forge their own path. The chorus here is especially reminiscent of Chalk Farm's work on their Notwithstanding album. The second track, "Three White Cars", finds Morton leading Llama into a jam, with Greenberg and Rollings guesting on some eerie keyboard lines. The jam plays out just long enough before landing back into the song proper, and is very sophisticated in its simplicity. "All You Ever Wanted", a mid-tempo rocker, may have the most radio potential here, but "Fruit", wasn't a bad choice as the first single either. "Carry Me High" may be the collection's standout track. The hand percussion that signals the song's start is the perfect set-up for Morton's introspective lyrics.

The album's most intriguing, or at least most revealing moment, is "Space
Love", a hidden track after the finale "To Believe". The stripped-down
studio instrumental does not radiate the vibe of the earnestness of a band
striving to be the next best thing, unlike much of the remainder of the
disc. Instead, we have a loose amalgamation of a song, with low-fi
production, shimmering cymbals, and a tight and jaunty organ line that
intertwines with both electric and acoustic guitars to produce one
indistinguishable, blissful, crystalline melody. The first half of the tune
is a struggle between amorphous grooves and a distinct rhythm until Mason
settles into a steady 4/4 beat. While this transition could've easily been
heavy-handed, Llama pulls it off with seamless vigor.

It seems that when the trio lets its guard down and lets the music play itself, we get a glimpse of the synergy between Brown, Mason and Morton, and also a notion of why a dedicated Llama following has sprung up in Nashville despite the outfit's youth. "Space Love" is one of those tracks, like "#34" on DMB's Under the Table and Dreaming album that begs to be heard in a quiet, barely lit room.

It's the perfect late-night dorm room song, the perfect chill-out number,
and despite its status as second-billing on Close to the Silence,
maybe even the perfect Llama song. For now. You will hear a lot more from
Llama, and if their debut is any indication, it's going to be catchy,
quirky, fresh, engaging and melodic modern rock.

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