Mojave 3 still seem to be something of a secret, 11 years and five albums on. Main songwriter Neil Halstead, often cited in critical circles as amongst the UK’s best songwriters, should by now be a name tripping off tongues, but it isn’t. Halstead himself, chilled surfer dude that he is, doubtless doesn’t mind; one track of new album Puzzles Like You features the line: “I don’t want to be a big star baby, is that okay?” So it was that on a sultry London evening in the cosy cellar that is the Borderline, the Americana-loving band set about showcasing their new record to loyally devout followers, augmented by some passing human tumbleweed from the world above.
Founding member Rachel Goswell, bassist and backing vocalist, is on extended leave due to a nasty bout of labyrinthitis, and there’s no replacement for her familiar harmonies. Instead, Halstead’s whispery vocals are left to hold their own. Confidently uptempo, Byrdsy new material such as set opener Truck Driving Man and, later, the album’s title track, louder than the dreamily acoustic whimsy of the band’s formative ouevre, leave Halstead straining to be heard in a sound mix in which electric guitar prevails.
An intriguing rock’n’roll feel characterises much of the new album, and this vibe gets carried over to some older material. Out Of Time’s Yer Feet, originally the dreamiest, comfortingly acoustic bliss imaginable on a record, gets a full band makeover and instead feels oddly jaunty. Some Kinda Angel and Give What You Take from the same period slot easier in to the prevailing sound.
When Halstead swaps his electric for acoustic guitar the mix markedly improves – but it’s then that we miss Goswell’s vocals most. The set list seems skewed to reflect this – most of it is upbeat rather than dreamy, but Halstead’s delivery leads to his audience attentively listening, rather than boogying along, anyway. Thus new soother Most Days is heard in near silence. Best of the oldies is In Love With A View, Halstead creating a wall of sound with his electric guitar at the end that makes the band sound momentarily like a rock outfit rather than an alt.country collective derived from the shoegazing days of Slowdive.
New single Breaking The Ice comes close. Even more arresting live than on record, this campfire anthem is amongst Mojave 3’s strongest songs and stands starkly against Bluebird of Happiness, from 2003’s more experimental Spoon & Rafter album, the full nine minutes of which are axed back to something more manageable. With this the main set ends.
With Rachel Goswell’s absence felt ever more through the evening, and a sound balance that struggled to represent them at their best, it was a somewhat odd night. But a brief encore of My Life In Art, one of the band’s many great moments from Excuses For Travellers, is as touching as ever. A get well soon card to Goswell then, and a sigh of relief that Halstead and his troops soldier on.