Traveller's checks 

Mojave 3's journeys pay off

"They're like Cream, they've got that '70s supergroup sound," says Neil Halstead, the singer/guitarist of Mojave 3, from his home clear across the Atlantic.

He isn't referring to his group -- an introverted, near-acoustic outfit -- or even a fellow British band. No, Halstead is talking about none other than Atlanta trio the Tom Collins, who he managed to catch once while in town.

It seems funny Halstead should be so enthusiastic about the hard rocking Tom Collins. The closest Mojave 3's recordings get to evoking arena-ready rock is a sound somewhat akin to Neil Young's introspective Silver and Gold. The band's latest album, Excuses for Travellers, stands as a middle ground between Mojave 3's mellow debut, Ask Me Tomorrow, and their previous album -- the hazy, melancholic Out of Tune. And despite the gently building acoustic guitars and occasional touch of overdrive, there's no unfolding "Stairway to Heaven"-type epic to be found.

No, the sounds of Mojave 3 are to those of Athens' Star Room Boys, another band employing that sweetest of country sounds -- the wailing pedal steel. Mojave 3, though, showcase more of a pang than a twang, closer to the somber, plaintive, dreamy music of acts such as Galaxie 500, the Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star. Still, while far from "country" as we know it, Mojave 3 do adopt elements of the countrified California sound of the '60s and '70s.

Halstead, along with Mojave 3 founders Rachel Goswell and Ian McCutcheon, was formerly in Slowdive, one of the more subdued early '90s British "shoegazer" bands. Slowdive were not as prone to sheer, unscalable walls of noise as the Jesus and Mary Chain -- or the visceral, ethereal pop of My Bloody Valentine -- but opted instead for a sound gracefully fading on shifting winds of breathy vocals and flanged guitars. Pure, pounding aggression was not their strong point.

"We were influenced by late '60s albums -- the Byrds, the Velvets -- and groups like Dinosaur, Jr. and Sonic Youth, who I guess were influenced by punk," says Halstead. "But I was 7 when punk hit and I just found it scary. I can appreciate the attitude, I suppose, but it wasn't such a revolution when I was getting into music, because the idea that you couldn't make loud aggressive music wasn't an issue. You obviously could, because punk had already done that."

Slowdive probably made a bigger noise in the British music scene for not being as overbearing with their effects pedals. The cascading waves of fuzzy reverb that blanket Slowdive's most critically acclaimed album, Souvlaki, ebb and flow in much the same manner as a well-handled pedal steel. The tendency to frame music simply is something Halstead has carried over to Mojave 3, even if the instrumentation has changed.

"The last Slowdive record is the most minimal thing I've ever done," he says. "I think the Mojave sound has gotten more lush as it has gone along. But I think there's a certain fragility to certain songs, and you'd lose that if the production was really lush or you did a wall of sound."

Mojave 3's music is often referred to as arid, not just because of the band's desert name, but because the sound of Excuses for Travellers -- released in the U.S. last year -- is dry. There are no wet reverbs and no pervasive choruses. Mojave 3's tonality is achieved through intentionally rough live-in-the-studio recording.

"I'd hardly played an acoustic guitar before Mojave," Halstead claims. "I think a lot of the mood comes out [exploring] it. There's a real resonance to playing an acoustic instrument that you don't get playing an electric guitar, especially an electric with loads of distortion on it."

Complementing the acoustic guitars and pedal steel on Excuses for Travellers are banjo, trumpet, trombone, flugelhorn, Moog and organ. Halstead says the evolving texture of the band comes from the increasing number of people involved, each bringing influences and ideas to the table. Initially a trio, the group has grown to a quintet, and while Halstead writes most of the songs, he simply puts them out for the others to interpret. What results are songs that provide a perfect bed for Halstead's bittersweet tales of weary and wary lovers to rest peacefully upon.

But in concert, Halstead says, the band may venture into 15-minute Neil Young-style jams, and things could get quite loud. Maybe the Tom Collins should stop in after all.

Mojave 3 play the Echo Lounge, Fri., Feb. 9. Show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 404-681-3600.

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