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The Mojave 3 - Puzzles Like You

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Artist: The Mojave 3

Album: Puzzles Like You

Label: 4AD

Review date: Jul. 5, 2006

Neil Halstead probably wouldn't have written a song called "Truck Driving Man" circa 1993. A latent fascination with rock-and-roll writ large has always lined his songs, but at heart he's not an exceptional rock-song writer, and he's had the good sense to smother those ideas in sheets of haze or slow-burn country drawl. His best work takes pop's simplicity and directness for granted, finding charm in the less obvious angles: lovingly detailed characters, careful auxiliary instrumentation, finely woven austerity. But Puzzles Like You, Mojave 3's fifth album, is not at all Halstead's best work, and what has sounded simple and subtle before begins to feel simplistic and blunt; the songs here move with an energy that seems either forced or mocking, and on the whole embrace the kind of triteness they used to offset.

Much of the trouble with Puzzles is its primary tempo, an outmoded and ponderously danceable cadence. "Truck Driving Man" (the point being that there now is such a song) pogoes along at a lively clip and dips into a sweet airy chorus, but it channels Supergrass or Suede or a fey Bloc Party, not that quiet dignity of Mojave 3 balladry; "Breaking The Ice," probably the album's best song, works in ways American pop radio tired of a few years ago. "To Hold Your Tiny Toes" and the oddly Freudian "Big Star Baby" revolve around legitimately exciting hooks, but a certain gamey insistence eventually makes them maddeningly repetitive. Joe Pernice might have written the title track and gotten away with it for its implicit rootsiness, but Halstead's ”don't mind puzzles like you,” with cheesy organ and handclaps under it, is pure Hallmark-card sentiment.

Those songs do not lack for melody or consistency; it's not because they're fast that they disappoint, but because they're developed with so little care. Under the weight of their pacing you see that Halstead is above all an artisan in languor, yet the slowed-down counterparts seem to go through the motions just as acutely. The sluggish, clip-clopping "You Said It Before" peddles bland solace on top of pedal steel (“Just go back to the place where you're happy / There's people who love ya / And they won't desert you, no they won't”). "Most Days" seethes a pleasingly smoky resignation, and "The Mutineer" has the whispery poignancy of turn-of-the-century Elliott Smith, but both fall short of the dreamy detachment that made Excuses For Travellers a career pinnacle; in truth, nothing here comes particularly close.

All else equal, it's not that these are bad songs, although a couple of them are truly awful ("Kill The Lights" in particular), it's that they're generic songs. Despite that moment, whenever it comes, where you know that the whole album is going to be vaguely yearning guitar chords and girls with only first names, there are many intrinsically worse things than Puzzles Like You. The real letdown is that it fails to live up to Halstead's past standards (or Rachel Goswell's, for that matter, may she convalesce speedily). Call it stagnation or regression, cash-in or cop-out, this is deeply conventional and generally passable pop from an act demonstrably much more talented.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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