THREE albums in, and trying to pin down Mojave 3 remains a pursuit as useful and feasible as trying to put a fence around a cloud (a recommendation, obviously). Even Neil Halstead - who, as Mojave 3's singer and principal songwriter, might be reckoned to have a better chance of defining the band than most - is defeated by the task. He's heard all the things other people have said, of course, has pondered an impressive litany of praise which has included favourable comparisons to Cowboy Junkies, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons, but still sounds none the wiser. If he doesn't think about these things too much himself, it's probably only a reflection of the fact that he wishes more people would just listen to the records; it's why he makes them the way he does.
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"I know we get tagged as a country band," he says, "and I can understand why, totally, but we never started out attempting to be a country band. In fact, it doesn't even feel like we're a band at all, in some respects - we've all got jobs. Basically, we just wanted to write simple songs."
To suggest that Mojave 3's third album, "Excuses For Travellers" is their best by some distance is not to disparage its predecessors, but merely to reflect the fact that the "simple songs" contained on it are Halstead's best yet. The two singles, "In Love With A View" and "Any Day Will Be Fine" between them hint at what Mojave 3 have accomplished here. The former is a lachrymose epic infused with the rueful wisdom that characterised the best work of Paul Simon or Jimmy Webb; the latter is possibly Halstead's first attempt at writing an unabashed pop song, and should add the name Brian Wilson to those routinely dropped in reviews of Mojave 3.
Mojave 3 - Halstead, bassplayer/vocalist Rachel Goswell, guitarist Simon Rowe (ex-Chapterhouse), keyboardist Alan Forrester and drummer Ian McCutcheon - broke cover in 1995, when a six-track demo impressed 4AD sufficiently to offer the band a deal, despite a then-prevailing musical climate of bumptious Britpop that seemed totally at odds with what Mojave 3 were doing. Reasonably, however, it was felt that not sounding enough like Shed Seven was no reason to turn such a promising band away. Nor was it considered a problem that Halstead and Goswell both had form as members of definitive Thames Valley shoegazers Slowdive.
"And anyway," continues Halstead, "there is a continuity there. Slowdive were never about anything complicated, either. They were all simple songs as well, just played loudly. There is a level at which Mojave 3 are the same simple sort of ideas played quietly. It is all connected - the last Slowdive album isn't too dissimilar to the first Mojave 3 album. Slowdive were just more focused on sound, and Mojave 3 are focused as much as possible on the songs, possibly to the detriment of making the records sound exciting, though I think we're starting to outgrow that now."
This last statement is spoken with a diffidence that belies Halstead's faith in Mojave 3's third album, "Excuses For Travellers" (the title, Halstead explains, with a similar, and altogether typical, lack of bravado, is down to the fact that "A lot of the songs are about moving away from things, and. . . actually, that's bollocks"). Though the album was recorded, with producer Mark Van Hoen, in London, where most of Mojave 3 still live (Halstead relocated to Cornwall some years ago for the peace, quiet and surfing), the songs on it were written in a variety of locations, including Halstead's Newquay home, a friend's place in Provence, and on tour (the eighteen months since Mojave 3's last album, the hysterically acclaimed and wholly deceptively titled "Out Of Tune" have also seen Halstead tour as a guitarist with Bernard Butler's band). "If I'm home too much," explains Halstead, "I do get to a point where I can't do anything, so some kind of stimulus is useful, yeah."
If "Excuses For Travellers" sounds like the album Mojave 3 have been working towards - which is to say, the album that will vindicate the not infrequent claim that Halstead is one of Britain's finest songwriters - it is no surprise to its chief architect. "This album is a reflection of the band at a certain point, so it has a much rawer sound than the others. That's why we recorded it quickly."
Another thing that has changed for "Excuses For Travellers" is that Mojave 3's other two core members contribute to the songwriting for the first time, Rachel providing the languid, subtly epic "Rachel's Song", and drummer Ian McCutcheon the gorgeously baleful, gospel-tinted closing track "Got My Sunshine". The eight songs Neil brought along, meanwhile, are more of the understated, plain spoken ballads he's been refining his knack for since Mojave 3 began.
"I don't know where we fit in," he says. "But I wouldn't do it if I didn't think people might like it. However corny it sounds, the most important thing is making a record you're proud of. And we have, and I am."
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