Despite a tendency among writers to view this UK combo’s moniker as shorthand — “‘Mojave’: open spaces, solitude, country-rock; OK, got it!” — there were enough manifestations of Giant Sand, Neil Young and Gram Parsons on the band’s first three albums to justify the critical laziness. Last year, principle songwriter Neil Halstead took a solo detour, but his quiet-core Sleeping On Roads only confirmed that some of the other comparisons he’d accumulated with Mojave 3 — wispy bedsit folkies Nick Drake and Elliott Smith — were accurate too.
Back in the M3 mothership, Halstead is now having things both ways. There’s at least one Young pastiche (the piano-and-pedal-steel ballad “She’s All Up Above”) and one straight-up country-folk tune (the amiably woozy “Between The Bars”, with banjo, harp, and dusty trail harmonies between Halstead and co-vocalist Rachel Goswell). Most of Spoon And Rafter, however, is given over to other types of investigation.
The album opens on a lengthy (9:14) note, “Bluebird Of Happiness”, swinging between electronica-tinged ambient pop and Beatlesque psychedelia. A pair of intricately crafted tunes (“Starlight No. 1″ and “Billoddity”) brings to mind a song-swapping summit between the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy.
Nods on the album in the direction of classic pop songwriters Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson and Emitt Rhodes suggest Halstead is working through a type of icon-worship that has infected many a musician before him. Where it leads him is, at this stage, up in the air. But he clearly has the will and the talent to make the journey fascinating.