Mojave 3 arose from the ashes of Slowdive in 1994. Rachel Goswell, Neil Halstead and Ian McCutcheon decided that while distorted, ambient soundscapes were fun, they’d made three albums worth of them, and it was time for a change of course - for simple songs that could be written and played on an acoustic guitar. The newly-named trio recorded a hushed and magical collection of demos which swiftly brought them a new home (4AD) and subsequently emerged almost unaltered as their first album, Ask Me Tomorrow.
The band had expanded their ranks by the time that they came to make Out Of Tune a couple of years later - Alan Forrester signed up, complete with Hammond C3 organ, as had Simon “Rosie” Rowe (from the recently-deceased Chapterhouse) who was enlisted primarily to contribute rootsy, Robbie Robertson-inspired guitar lines. When asked to describe the difference between their first and second albums, Halstead responded, with characteristic self-deprecating humour, that they had pushed their sound on “from slow country to mid-slow tempo country-rock… right on!” In fact, Out Of Tune was a collection of slow-burning classics and gemlike songwriting - tracks from that era, like “Give What You Take” and “Some Kinda Angel”, remain much-loved cornerstones of the Mojave live experience.
Having paid their dues on the road in America and elsewhere, the band regrouped at the end of 1999 to make a third album. Financial constraints too tangled to go into here meant that Excuses for Travellers - eventually released in May 2000 - was made on a shoestring, but this had very little impact on the rich quality of the material. Mojave 3 stretched out luxuriously, offering languid, bewitching melancholia like “My Life In Art” and “In Love With A View” alongside the deceptively jaunty single “Return To Sender”. Their reward was a continued expansion of their fanbase, and the band toured once again in front of the warm audiences of their American spiritual home.
Mojave 3 took a back seat during 2002 as Neil concentrated on a wonderful solo record called Sleeping On Roads - a collection of songs which allowed him to explore both slightly more experimental areas - the motorik pulse of “See You On Rooftops”, for example - and the intimate lyrical concerns of “Two Stones In My Pocket” and “Martha’s Mantra”. Halstead described the record as Bert Jansch recorded by Spiritualized, which isn’t a million miles away.
This impulse to experiment may have left a permanent legacy - certainly, when the next Mojave 3 album appeared, it was something of a departure for the band. Spoon And Rafter was mostly recorded in the band’s own studio located “in a field smelling of cow-shit” just outside Newquay, Cornwall, and the band responded to the lack of pressure on studio time by making some of their most ambitious and kaleidoscopic music.
The scene was set by the opening track “Bluebird Of Happiness”, all nine glorious minutes of it - Spoon And Rafter is an album composed and recorded in widescreen technicolour. While songs like “Billoddity” and “Starlite #1″ were as melodically memorable as anything else the band had recorded, they were characterised by a luxurious sense of space and lavish attention to detail in the arrangements - analogue synthesisers, acoustic guitars and pedal steel all arriving in warm, affirmative layers. “Battle Of The Broken Hearts”, a multifaceted epic lurking at the heart of the album, only confirmed its gentle but thoroughgoing ambition.
The following year - 2004 - saw Rachel Goswell join Neil on the solo trail with Waves Are Universal. The record was a quiet triumph, majoring on organic, natural atmospheres and simple, folky melodies; it was stunningly beautiful and widely acclaimed. Ian has also been making productive use of his downtime, forming his own band, The Loose Salute; a debut album is currently in the works.
Which brings us to the band’s fifth album Puzzles Likes You, set for release in summer 2006. Once again, it sees the band moving on - this time in a slightly unexpected direction.
Because, as Neil suggested in a recent interview with Pitchfork, the songs that make up the record are more immediate - poppy, even - than anything he and the band have written before. Puzzles Like You is filled with the life-affirming light of Mojave 3’s Cornish base - splashed with sunlight and the heady sparkle of summertime waves. The songs - taking their cue from the soaring lead-off single “Breaking The Ice” - fizz past, brimming with renewed confidence.
This effervescent poise is all the more impressive given that the album had a somewhat troubled genesis - its first incarnation was fully completed when a horde of mice decided to infest the studio, running amok among the band’s equipment and making a general nuisance of themselves. This created technical mayhem and caused considerable delays as well. Fortunately, an angel was waiting in the wings in the shape of Victor Van Vugt (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Beth Orton, Luna, Athlete) who stepped into the breach, took the recordings to his New York City studio, and completed a set of wonderful mixes in short order.
As a result, the melodic lilt of tracks like “Puzzles Like You”, “Running With Your Eyes Closed” and “Big Star Baby” shines sweetly through, while the wistful introspection of “Most Days” and “You Said It Before” is redeemed by warm tones and the deftest of sonic placement.
All of which means that Puzzles Like You is the most approachable, infectious and downright fun record that Mojave 3 have ever made - a fact reflected in the exuberant artwork supplied by artist / film director Thomas Campbell (whose film Sprout majored on Mojave and Halstead music) and the marvellously quirky video for “Breaking The Ice” directed by Bradley Beesley (Flaming Lips). It seems set, like all of its predecessors, to bring the band a wider audience - and when people fall under the spell of Mojave 3’s subtle and gorgeous music, they tend to stick around.