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April 23, 2002

Neil Halstead plays the Abbey Pub

Neil Halstead

The Abbey Pub

April 16

Chris Seet

A reviewer once hailed Neil Halstead as "one of Britain's greatest songwriters." While we're quick to become desensitized to such media clichés, in Halstead's case, there is inarguably something solid and remarkable about his songwriting.

Halstead has recorded six albums with two bands, Slowdive and Mojave 3. He returns this year with his debut as a solo artist. Though obviously reaching through production methods for a sound distinct from his bands', his songwriting remains too consistent and continuous to mask: a growing body of work that is already showing signs of timelessness.

Halstead himself argues that the emphasis in his songs is lyrical, and less musical, but even a cursory listen to his songs will have you searching your mind to place what about them hits you as they do. It's like an itch you can't scratch, trying to figure this out. The closest I've come to it is concluding that Halstead gets it right: he places notes where they should be; not necessarily where you'd predict them to be, but where you'd want them to be. He writes lyrics and melodies with an innocence and humility that other more image-driven artists would be scared or embarrassed to broach.

Tonight Halstead plays the Abbey Pub with beach calm. Most of the set is drawn from his recent solo album, Sleeping on Roads, a lavish collection of melodies fleshed out by a whimsical, decidedly David Friddman-esque production. With the paring down of the instruments to just an acoustic guitar and a smattering of harmonica, the songs themselves are pushed to the front; both solo work and work done with Mojave 3 share equal footing and delivery. Halstead's pitch-perfect voice is the other thing—probably the first thing—one notices. Its warmth and slight huskiness bring to mind both desert colors and shades of the late and wonderful Nick Drake.

In this setting, songs such as "See You on Rooftops" and "Two Stones in My Pocket" (in which Halstead laughs, and abandons ship after two false starts) lose their fanciful production to become folk ballads in the truest sense. The best example of this is "Martha's Mantra," a song "about a girl I met who lost her Mantra," Halstead reflects. With delicately finger-plucked guitar and chords that rise, fall, and rise again perfectly back into place, Halstead conjures up a sound—and arguably a mentality—that arrived, and gracefully departed, with the '60s.

Mojave 3 songs in particular receive a warm reception tonight. Notably, "In Love with a View" surfaces, even more elegant and reflective in its acoustic form. The opening song of 2000's Excuses for Travellers, this track, more so than any, is a great example for anyone interested in the current state of the folk ballad; its listener will be impressed without hesitation. Other Mojave 3 songs are selected for their suitability; songs that thrive and soar given their humble production. The shimmering pop songs of the last two Mojave 3 albums are avoided in favour of the ballads. "My Life in Art" is played delicately and remorsefully, while "Yer Feet," one of the best tracks from 1998's Out of Tune, is played more up-tempo, transforming from an album lament to a live, early-Dylan style folk ballad.

It's clear that this is such a time when there is no shortage whatsoever of acoustic singer-songwriters. Perhaps Halstead should have chosen five years ago to release his solo album, but either way, the immediate peership assigned him with other "slowcore" performers is unfortunate and misleading. Halstead is not without his slow music and woe, but there is also a lot of joy in his music too. He has songs about surfing on the English coast, the sun glinting off the "highlights in your hair," and, more importantly, there is substance to Halstead's body of work that reaches beyond the mood and atmosphere that other artists rely almost blindly on. Too often it is the case that such singers produce slow, wheezing, lo-fi creations that capitalize more on a fashionably hick Americana than on content and songwriting together.

While Halstead still has some way to go before receiving widespread recognition as an important songwriter, like the legendary Nick Drake before him, Halstead has achieved enough within his last four recordings to rest his reputation on. Luckily for us, though, it looks as though his solo career is just beginning.