Mojave 3 are not dead. Almost 10 years since the principal members of Mojave 3 followed My Bloody Valentine's lead in the shoegazing movement as Slowdive, and more than one year since lead-singer Neil Halstead released a solo album leading to speculation of Mojave 3's demise, the band returns with an album so dreamy, ethereal, and sublime you'll hardly even notice it is on the turntable.
Mojave 3 have long been considered an alt-country or alt-folk outfit, but Spoon and Rafter is an album that lacks enough substance to fit into either of these genres. Sure, there is some slide-steel guitar on the record, but not enough to create an identity for the album. In fact, many of the tracks on the album not only lack the grit or texture to make the songs relevant, they even lack the presence to remind the listener that they are playing. Songs of pensive broken hearts like "Writing to St. Peter", "Tinker's Blues", and "Too Many Mornings" end up causing the listener to wonder if the iron was turned off before leaving the house, whether or not the Chicago Cubs will make the playoffs, and what would be good for dinner. The listener's mind wanders as the album plays because the songs do not demand or compel attention.
Perhaps this is why the categorization of "dream-pop" has suddenly been thrown around as the latest and best description of Mojave 3's sound. To an extent, this description has utility. Mojave 3's songs have a dreamy feel to them. The record evokes feelings that are surreal and otherworldly, aspects that are essential to dreams. But these are not the aspects that make dreams so powerful. Dreams have such an impact on our consciousness because they are surreal events that occur within a context that is explicitly based on our reality. Dreams that feel so real are the dreams that shake us and impact our waking lives. But the smell and feel of reality that is inherent to powerful dreams is missing from the dream-pop of Mojave 3. The band needs some texture thrown into their ethereal pop to make it mean something to the listener.
The disappointment of Spoon and Rafter is as much attributable to Mojave 3's potential as it is to the album's results. The tracks that they have assembled here are effortless and pleasing; they just don't take the listener as far as they could. Tracks that hint at how far Mojave 3 could take its audience are "Hard to Miss You", a subtle, inward song that is propelled forward by simple piano and Halstead's wavering voice, and "She's All Up Above", which allows Halstead to set the stage lyrically and employs an aching guitar as verse, taking a step back from the literal to let the music actually express what words cannot. Another interesting song is the track that begins the album, "Bluebird of Happiness", which times in at over nine minutes and is essentially one song in three parts. The first part is restrained and hazy; it eventually tapers out and lets an upbeat rendition of the track take over (the second part), which also winds its own course eventually settling down to for a reprise of the first part. "Bluebird of Happiness" is built upon a base of alien beeps and clicks, which are reminiscent of Wilco's expert use of similar effects in the landmark Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
These promising tracks are not fundamentally different from the tracks that escape the listener's attention. The album is subtle, so differences between successful and unsuccessful songs are also subtle. And to be fair, success is relative to the desires of the listener. Those who want an album that does not impose itself on the listener and who desire a record that simply becomes part of the environment, like the white-noise of a fan, will find a record in Spoon and Rafter to fill that need. For those who want engaging and compelling dream pop, perhaps next time out Mojave 3 will have exactly what you are looking for.