Imagine if mid-period Cocteau Twins sang in recognizable English and used more conventional rock structures, with three guitarists so steeped in echo and delay it’s almost dizzying. And add irresistible melodies and male/female harmony cooing. Reading quintet Slowdive never quite earned the respect they deserved—with the exception of some accolades heaped on their first three singles—but they were surprisingly one of England’s most formidable bands when the tempest they whipped up was at its most swirling.
Just for a Day is up and down in material, but the songs that are solid are breathtaking, and those that aren’t are at least hypnotic and slowly sensuous. “Spanish Air” and “Catch the Breeze” have perfectly windswept, otherworldly textures and a timeless, boundless beauty thanks to those oceans of guitars and Simon Scott’s surprisingly aggressive drumming. The two-minute coda to “Catch the Breeze” is the band’s zenith, a rapturous non- vocal passage of subconscious wonder.
Blue Day compiles the band’s first three singles (minus “Catch the Breeze” and a cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”). Three of the seven songs show why the press raved: “Slowdive” sports a guitar line so memorable it sears. Likewise “Morningrise” and “She Calls” (which has another sparkling instrumental passage to rival “Catch the Breeze”) are dense lattices of splendor.
Though not as big or swirling, Souvlaki is more consistent in that it continues the thunderous mood music with the songwriting more to the fore. Everything is simplified, as if Brian Eno’s presence on two songs—he contributes keyboards and treatments, and co-wrote one tune—hammered home the better aspects of ambient music. On the opening “Alison,” the largely uplifting “When the Sun Hits” and the darkly blissful “Machine Gun,” Slowdive proves it is still capable of jaw-dropping flourishes. Best of all, a mild dose of reggae propels “Souvlaki Space Station” to fascinating, trance- like heights amidst the rain of guitars. (The US edition adds four songs, including a cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning.”)
Slowdive may have spent too much time with Eno: Pygmalion is totally out of left field. Essentially a solo ambient recording by singer/guitarist Neil Halstead that should have been released under his own name, it completely lacks all the tension, songwriting, sounds and power of the band’s work, leaving only the spatial dimensions. As background mood music, Talk Talk did this better; at best, Pygmalion is an LP to fall asleep to. A couple of tracks approximate the band’s former dream- like sound and pulse, but otherwise it’s an unmitigated disappointment.
Slowdive was dropped shortly after Pygmalion‘s release. Halstead, Rachel Goswell (Slowdive’s other singer) and drummer Ian McCutcheon became Mojave 3 and signed to 4AD. With the new name and label came a complete change in direction: On Ask Me Tomorrow, Halstead’s once- billowing cathedrals-of-sound guitar becomes a teasing whisper, plucked as delicately as if someone were sleeping nearby. (McCutcheon has to resort to brushes in order to keep from drowning him out.) But instead of snoozy background music, the album returns to the musicians’ strengths, with developed compositions and pretty chords again harnessing Goswell’s gentle singing to wistful, caressing music. Songs such as the Mazzy Starry opener “Love Songs on the Radio,” “Tomorrow’s Taken” and the biggest-sounding thing here, the closing “Mercy” (great insistent piano by Christopher Andrews) don’t just tickle and tease, they tug. The mountainous sonic vistas are likely gone forever, but, in the quietest way possible, Mojave 3 remains among the most beautiful noises in all of creation.
Out of Tune moved Mojave 3 even further from Slowdive’s expansive, ethereal moodscapes. The album still has a dreamy quality, but the sound is more intimate and earthbound. Warm Hammond and Wurlitzer organs, strummed acoustic guitars, sunny brass, occasional pedal steel and sweet harmonies enhance the overall ’60s West Coast feel, while several tracks pay more specific homage. On “Who Do You Love,” the combination of keyboards and Halstead’s soothing voice nods to Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter, as does the lilting (and grammatically correct) “To Whom Should I Write.” With guest B.J. Cole adding some pedal- steel twang, “Give What You Take” recalls early Neil Young. But Halstead’s chief muse here is Dylan. On the gentle acoustic number “Yer Feet,” which evokes “Visions of Johanna,” he playfully affects a nasal delivery.
If Mojave 3’s first two albums went against the grain of ’90s Britpop fashion to embrace Americana instead of pursuing the de rigueur musical version of Little Englandism, Excuses for Travellers was the culmination of that process. It was also the group’s most mature, self-assured work to date. One could be forgiven for thinking that Mojave 3, as the creators of Excuses for Travellers, hailed from some arid Southwestern town. Much of the material calls to mind the Jayhawks and Wilco, particularly “Return to Sender,” a sing-along with harmonies, banjo and harmonica. Nevertheless, there’s an undeniably English flavor, rooted as the music is in folk- pop tradition. Downbeat hymnal numbers like “She Broke You So Softly” and “Prayer for the Paranoid,” both enhanced by their piano melodies and Halstead’s hushed, breathy vocals, continue to evoke Drake. Although Halstead does a stellar job as principal vocalist, it’s refreshing to hear Goswell sing lead on the yearning ballad “Bringin’ Me Home.”
Halstead’s solo debut, Sleeping on Roads, contains no surprises; it sounds like a stripped-down version of Mojave 3. (The band’s producer, Mark Van Hoen, helps out here, as do keyboard player Alan Forrester and drummer McCutcheon.) The tone is familiarly bittersweet; the arrangements intimate and understated, focused largely on Halstead and his acoustic guitar, with glockenspiel, cello, trumpet, banjo, dobro and organ providing subtle coloring. Vintage electronics add another dimension, most memorably on the title track and “See You on Rooftops.” While some of the band’s alt-country sound carries over here, Sleeping on Roads is more strongly rooted in British musical traditions, especially ’60s and early ’70s folk. Nick Drake clearly remains an inspiration, but Bert Jansch also emerges as a key influence. Picking rather than strumming, Halstead imbues a fair bit of this material with the rhythmic, softly rocking quality of Jansch’s guitar work. “Seasons” and “Driving With Bert,” in particular, have the feel of Jansch tracks like “Needle of Death” or Pentangle’s “Light Flight.”
Compared to Excuses for Travellers and Halstead’s solo album, Spoon & Rafter is a disappointment. The band’s best work establishes intimacy through fragile, emotionally naked songs, rich in melodies that tug at the heartstrings. On Spoon & Rafter the connection feels weaker. Earlier Mojave 3 songs sank their hooks in instantly; here, there are fewer simple, memorable melodies. The spare, hymn-like “She’s All Up Above” and the wistful “Too Many Mornings” are inviting enough, but the arrangements aren’t as clean and sparse as usual. Though the ingredients are familiar, the songs tend to be over- dressed. Some tracks suffer from a surplus of mood swings: the drifting nine-minute opener, “Bluebird of Happiness,” has several distinct segments that never really come together.