Excuses For Travellers
Beggars Banquet / 4ad
By: Eric G.
Wresting the beauty from its flawed second album, Out Of Tune, Mojave 3 returns with a gorgeous batch of heart-soaked, minor-keyed, country-ish tunes that honor Nick Drake as much as Gram Parsons. Neil Halstead sings with a dreamy sigh of resignation and sadness. His songs are fragile and simple led by an acoustic guitar but flanked subtlety by everything from moogs and horns to pedal steel guitars and synthesizers. Halstead is hesitant to call his band ‘country’ because, well, he’s British, and being authentically ‘country’ is an inherently American concept. He wears his borrowed spurs well, though, and romanticizes Americana with enough accuracy and delicacy to make our own Opry pioneers proud.
Excuses For Travellers is like a long drive across old country backroads. It has a nostalgic air about it. “In Love With A View” sets a gray tone that the rest of the album builds upon. Its slow, swaying tempo swells to a graceful crescendo. You can hear traces of Slowdive’s shoegazing shimmer as the song builds to its climax. “Trying To Reach You” sets plonking banjos against a smooth seventies, almost Eagles-sounding ballad. “My Life In Art” has that retro-ethereal quality that The Clientele has mastered so well. The album grows darker with each song and is only interrupted sporadically with sunny pop tangents.
Halstead’s songwriting has truly come into its own. Where Out Of Tune suffered from questionable lyrics and lackadaisical tunes, Excuses For Travellers makes up for it in spades. “Return To Sender” is an instant classic with a grand sing-along feel: “I went looking for a priest/I said say something please/I don’t wanna live my life all alone…and the word on the street is that death is complete/when you think that you know where you’re going.” The melodies bathe you in a warm light that feels like it slipped in through a crack in some dilapidated shack.
It seems too reductive to compare Halstead’s approach to Nick Drake’s simply because Drake is the poster boy for depressed folkies, but there are similarities at the core. While Halstead never conjures the gut-wrenching sadness that Drake wallowed in he does make you feel lonely with his fragile inflection. Bright spots like “Any Day Will Be Fine” shift the mood unexpectedly, but it’s a welcome tangent, showcasing Halstead’s penchant for pure pop gems. There’s a dark country twang underneath the chipper organs and horns to remind you that the happiness is only fleeting. Halstead briefly emerges from the shadows to punch his voice up a bit, and it recalls early Paul Simon with its choirboy stillness and clarity.
Bassist Rachel Goswell’s voice compliments Halstead’s without drawing attention to itself. She has a soothing lilt that Halstead uses far too sparingly. She does manage to eke out a whole song solo, and it’s an album highlight. The gothic synthesizers sound out of context compared to the rest of the album, but it works because her voice is so alluring. Her cadence, like Halstead’s, has an intrinsically sad intonation, but it’s more direct; it cuts right through the hazy acoustic guitars and holds you under its spell. It’s the type of song you’ll listen to over and over.
Mojave 3 is one of those bands I didn’t really expect too much from, but Excuses For Travellers has shown me the light. I will never underestimate the band again.