Spoon and Rafter
Show me a band that hasn’t tinkered with electronica, and I’ll show you a band that’s the laughingstock of every cocktail party they attend. “You what?” asks someone in a loud voice designed to embarrass. “You mean you haven’t put a spooky, repetitive bleeping noise in your lead track? Shit, we’ve been doing that sort of thing since, oh, at least 2001. What kind of musician are you, anyway?”
I doubt that even songwriters with the thickest of skins can endure this sort of mockery for long. So the embracing of ones and zeroes was bound to happen sooner or later to the tranquil, folksy, largely acoustic Mojave 3, and it comes on their fourth album Spoon and Rafter.
This shouldn’t greet listeners as a complete shock. Mojave 3 frontman Neil Halstead made a few hesitant forays into the computerized realm on his superb solo album Sleeping on Roads last year. For those who have instead been biding their time since 2000’s Excuses for Travelers for another ensemble effort, this new musical bent will certainly be a surprise, but an immensely pleasant one nevertheless. Whereas electronica can be cold, clumsy experimentation for its own sake, here it is unobtrusive and delicate — natural, even, if you overlook the inherent contradiction. Thus we have the nine-minute opener “Bluebird of Happiness.” It begins with a frail mechanical drone, which is soon overlaid with piano and pedal steel and Halstead softly repeating, “Gotta find a road that brings me home soon / Gotta find a way back home.” Three minutes later, this gives way to a cosmic crossfade effect and Rachel Goswell’s soothing, somewhat marble-mouthed vocals, only to return to the drone and piano of the intro somewhere around the six-minute mark. As far as indie pop goes, this approaches the sublime.
The integration of the digital reaches its apex on the upbeat “Billoddity.” (What puzzles me is that this sounds like a reference to Bill Oddie, the peculiar, overenthusiastic nature lover of British television. Unless he’s “holdin’ hands and holdin’ hearts” with the band, he has nothing to do with the song.) Halstead’s vocals are run through the familiar CB radio-like filter, while transmission static and space age pings and beeps dance in the background — with deft touches of glockenspiel, of course. Towards the middle of the album, “Battle of the Broken Hearts” makes way for Theremin, digital delay and light orchestration. Far from stripping the music of the subdued, vulnerable stylings of Nick Drake, the added instrumentation merely enhances these qualities. To most ears, Mojave 3’s songs will never have sounded so intimate or poignant. The sole drawback to the album is Goswell’s diminished role throughout.
Many of us lamented the dissolution of Slowdive back in 1995, but that band’s quiet demise has since resulted in four outstanding albums under the Mojave 3 moniker. (Fellow shoegazers Ride haven’t been so fortunate.) Spoon and Rafter simply perpetuates the high standard already established by this UK five-piece. If it isn’t playing in your stereo right now, it ought to be.