The temptation with Spoon and Rafter
is to take a quick sampling of the record and to dismiss it as pleasant but ultimately inoffensive background music. As seems to be the case with virtually every record of which Neil Halstead is a part, whether solo, with Slowdive or with Mojave 3, Spoon and Rafter
isn't meant for skimming, or for cursory attention. Halstead's music demands a commitment from the listener, though "demands" is probably language too strong to hang on music as slight as his. To the listener who pays close attention, however, Halstead's fragile melodies unfold into worlds of haunted longing, where every subsequent listen reveals new layers, new details, new subtleties. His is a world filled with dust and desolation, loss competing with faint strands of hope.
With Mojave 3, Halstead has achieved a seamless fusion of traditions, creating something true to the musical traditions of both America and his native England. The band routinely conjures images of dust bowl desolation with their use of stretched out pedal steel lines and touches of harmonica, while Halstead's melodies and vocal delivery, coupled with Mark Van Hoen's dry production touch, reveals a firm devotion to the folk music that came out of England in the early 1970s. The combination results in a truly timeless sound -- Spoon and Rafter could be as easily be thirty years old as thirty days -- and one that is distinctively Mojave 3.
On his recent solo record, Halstead seemed to be channelling the spirit of Nick Drake, and that understated sensibility is still a driving force here, although most of the lead melodies have been moved onto the piano from the guitar. The rest of the band fleshes things out with rising swells of pedal steel, muted percussion, echoing background vocals and strategically placed electronic burbles. The melodies are hauntingly memorable; the band is smart enough to add just enough supporting touches to augment and support, without ever threatening to overwhelm. Mojave 3's music is all about space, and they've left these tracks plenty of room to breathe. Though the songs are all rooted firmly in Americana and folk music, there are occasional moments of epic sweep -- such as the stunning, nine-plus minute, multi part album opener "Bluebird of Happiness" -- that reveal the core band members' roots in the early nineties shoegazer scene.
Halstead appears to be destined for cult status. His adamant refusal to tap into current musical trends means that his work is unlikely ever to be heard on radio or receive much in the way of mainstream press coverage, leaving him to rely on word of mouth to get the word out. At the same time, his work is of such uniformly high quality that the word has indeed gotten out, and new converts are made daily. Spoon and Rafter may not break any new ground for the man, but it gives no indication that Halstead is anywhere close to wearing out his muse.