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The Mojave 3 - Spoon and Rafter

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Artist: The Mojave 3

Album: Spoon and Rafter

Label: 4AD

Review date: Oct. 20, 2003


If it seems easy to call out Neil Halstead for laziness, it's because he doesn't change his approach to songwriting from album to album or band to band: Slowdive used lush, ethereal drones, Mojave 3 uses Brit-appropriated country idioms, on his own he relies mainly on the bare intimacy of his voice and a guitar, but beneath it all is always the same gentle, understated song structure. His work generally manages to sound beautiful dreamy, nowhere in particular to be, head in the clouds and two fingers on the wheel. Slowdive's 1993 Souvlaki, Mojave 3's 2000 Excuses for Travelers, and his solo record, last year's Sleeping On Roads, are phenomenal albums, and the material that bridges the gaps between them are a far cry from shabby lazy or not.

Still, greeted with a new Mojave 3 album, it doesn't seem unreasonable to wonder what terrain remains uncharted in the realm of Anglo-Americana. Between Excuses, a spectacular distillation of rustic heartbreak and polite aloofness, and its two predecessors, the transitional post-Slowdive Ask Me Tomorrow and the good-natured but spotty Out of Tune (to say nothing of Sleeping On Roads, which wasn't really all that different), there are no readily apparent roads not taken. And as such Spoon and Rafter feels, at first and for quite a while after, like it's treading well-worn ground. Halstead still only half-sings, opting for that Nick Drake whisper where you don't have to pronounce the ends of lines; the brushed drums and finger-picked guitar are still achingly slow; the breath of pedal steel here and there is subtle and tasteful as ever. Little, if anything, has changed, and perhaps expecting Halstead to grow significantly was foolish and unreasonable in the first place.

For most of the time, really, Spoon and Rafter's lack of novelty is only a superficial flaw songs like "Starlight No. 1" and "Writing to St. Peter", although they could have more convincingly showed up on Excuses, are nothing if not gorgeous. Others make similarly favorable impressions without branching out much: the Beatles-esque clomp of "Tinker's Blues" locates Halstead's all-but-forgotten British influences, while the banjo, harmonica, and pedal steel on "Between the Bars" make for a lovely country-fried endpiece. Even "Bluebird of Happiness", a nine-minute flurry of Slowdive murmurs punctuated by a few bursts of sunny, majestic pop, feels experimental only by virtue of its length. Everything here is marked with a hint of familiarity, but it's surprisingly hard to mind.

In fact, maybe it's just that familiarity that makes Mojave 3 and its relatives so engrossing time after time. Spoon and Rafter is warm and intimate through and through, reassuring without being as quietly unsettling as the records before it. And while not much on it could be classified comfortably among Halstead's best work, its gentle tones of haze and tranquility, at once lush and sparse, pardon what it lacks in innovation.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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