Mojave 3’s first three dreamily acoustic records were followed, in 2003, by the experimental Spoon & Rafter. Puzzles Like You suggests that the band, fronted by main songwriter Neil Halstead, have got experimentalism out of their system. If the press release is to be believed, this is Mojave 3 doing pop.
That’s not to say Halstead, these days sporting a porno moustache that would be at home in a 118 118 advert, has started formation dancing. Rather, there are songs on Puzzles Like You that crank up the volume and the tempo on a melodic template utilised successfully by the band throughout its previous material. On first listen the faster pace sounds like a change of direction. Rather it’s a development – Mojave 3 emerging from the cinematic, lonely desert into a roadside diner in which a jukebox plays ’60s American rock’n’roll.
Truck Driving Man, the title track and Ghostship Waiting – the latter an obvious second single – are among the tracks in which electric guitar is turned up and that ’60s vibe runs to the fore. The newfound noise, which in a live setting can overwhelm Halstead’s fragile vocals, is here mixed well by Victor van Vugt. Just A Boy and Ghost Ship Waiting almost implore the listener to sing along as guitar swoons and Halstead’s vocals rasp.
Fellow founding member Rachel Goswell, on indefinite leave due to a nasty bout of labyrinthitis, had a minimal contribution to the record due to her condition, but her dreamy backing vocals add so much to those songs she does appear on, especially the slower numbers. Flourishes of big, reverb-laden guitar sounds and organ twirls in Kill The Lights leave an obvious harmony part out.
There are still lovely dreamy moments. Big Star Baby, You’ve Said It Before and Most Days, both relatively downtempo, could come from any of the band’s albums and will keep long time fans happy, as will drummer Ian McCutcheon’s bleary, beautiful little closer, The Mutineer. McCutcheon’s voice is as gently fragile as that of the late Elliott Smith. Over subtle piano and pedal steel, his composition returns Mojave 3 safely to that reflective, waking-up place from which they’d set out with Ask Me Tomorrow.
Lead single Breaking The Ice, by stark contrast, is a bona fide anthem, but it is to the band’s credit that they vary the album’s composite parts to set this piece in context rather than replicate its formula. Growing fonder, as its predecessor did, with repeat listens, Puzzles Like You rewards with little details. You Said It Before sounds ever more like a gentle walk on horseback across open country, with percussion suggesting hooves and a repetitive refrain beguiling and seducing.
Billed as the poppiest Mojave 3 have ever been, Puzzles Like You is more than that – in places a development of what fans have come to expect, elsewhere a conscious attempt at changing the band’s sound. Never less than a lovely, loved-up record, Puzzles Like You is not the equal of Excuses For Travellers, but is far from shabby either. And if it’s not likely to cause a populist breakthrough for a band that seems destined to continue just to the periphery of public consciousness, perhaps they won’t be too displeased. As Halstead’s lyrics in Big Star say, “I don’t want to be a big star baby – is that okay?” Absolutely. It’s the little details that make life worth living.