Mojave 3 has been flying just below the radar for quite a while now. Over the course of four albums and various EPs the band has refined their sound to a moody blend of blessed out pop tempered by hints of country. The country element of Mojave 3’s sound has always been what sets the band apart from legions of other Britpop bands. It’s also been a bit of an albatross hanging around the band’s neck. I imagine lead singer and principle songwriter Neil Halstead has grown weary of both deflecting and accepting the constant comparisons to everyone from the Cowboy Junkies to Gram Parsons. Of course within any comparison there inevitably kernels of truth, for Mojave 3 has certainly let the lonesome hum of pedal steel coupled with a lyrical fascination with America (do you think they actually have much experience with chill Kansas winds or throat burning moonshine?) be the foundation for their songs. Couple that uniquely American perspective with a jangly guitar that recalls such quintessential British groups as The Smiths and The Kinks and it’s easy to understand Mojave 3’s cult, though appropriately rabid, following.
With Puzzles Like You Mojave 3 has added an album easily as good as their often cited high water mark Excuses For Travelers. With the health of founding member Rachel Goswell preventing her from touring, the band nearing the end of their deal with 4 AD, and Halstead’s solo work receiving high praise, it must at least be considered a possibility that this could be the last offering we get from Mojave 3 for awhile. If it’s a swan song the band certainly could’ve done worse. Puzzles Like You contains the excellent balladry expected from Halstead, but the real surprise is the decidedly up-tempo guitar pop that blows away any conceptions of the band as purveyors of a countrified blend of mope rock.
If you’re smart you’ll dismiss the album opener “Truck Driving Man” straight away. A pseudo rockabilly rave up that sounds like a band trying to sound like a band well influenced and heavily indebted to American roots rock, it is an example of what can wrong when Mojave 3’s Yank influences run roughshod. The song is nearly saved at the mid point by a “la la la” harmony break down and added synthesizer line, fortunately the album only goes up from here. But what is laid down clearly from the outset is Mojave 3’s intention to present an album of up-tempo pop songs that lean heavily on synths, keyboards, and jangly Marr-esque guitar, much more than the weepy pedal steel we’ve become to expect. In fact it’s not until we get to “Most Days”, the album’s fifth song, that we hear what can only be termed a “traditional” Mojave 3 sound. “Most Days” is a quiet ballad supported by lush harmonies, a delicate piano, and Mojave 3’s signature pedal steel.
“Running With Your Eyes Closed” is also bathed in the silky drone of pedal steel guitar, but those dulcet strains don’t run the show; instead the song blossoms into near perfect pop anchored by Halstead and Goswell’s harmonies and a churning guitar.
“Most Days” echoes Excuses For Travelers’ “Return to Sender” but instead of loping guitar chords fit for a campfire, the song is built on a folky guitar progression and gently plinked piano. When the pedal steel cries into the song and Goswell’s voice joins Halstead’s it’s a little slice of heaven Mojave 3 style.
“Ghost Ship Waiting”, “Kill the Lights”, and “To Hold Your Tiny Toes” are all, not to go all Donnie and Marie on you, a little more rock ‘n’ roll than country. It’s a common occurrence on Puzzles Like You to find the pedal steel and acoustic guitar pushed aside in favor of keyboards and ringing electric guitar parts. The band’s songs have always been rooted in a pop framework, but the songs on Puzzles Like You feel oddly liberated while still sounding very much like Mojave 3. Perhaps it’s that we’re hearing the sound of a band grown comfortable in its own skin, and not feeling a need to toe a particular line of expectation.
Puzzles Like You is far from a completely unexpected turn of events. Mojave 3 has always been a pop band infatuated with country not the other way around. They just happen to be good enough to blend each style into something that’s uniquely Mojave 3.