Folk implosion

Jan 13, 1999 at 12:00 am

Mojave 3 singer and songwriter Neal Halstead wears his influences on his sleeve: Out of Tune, the British band's second album, smacks of Richie Havens and a bit of Nick Drake, and Halstead's phrasing on songs such as "Yer Feet" and "To Whom Should I Write" is uncannily -- and irksomely -- Dylan-esque. Indeed, while these are fine influences, no question, the songs in which Halstead apes his forebears most are the album's least inviting, and you can't help but wish that he would lean more on his own tender, folksy sound -- and push his envelope a little more, as well.

When he does, the results are warm and catchy songs like "Some Kinda Angel." Strings, horns and tambourine complement robust piano and electric guitars, and bassist Rachel Goswell adds her always-welcome, airy harmonies to Halstead's vocals. The song is measured and beautifully orchestrated, up-tempo and jingly-jangly -- it tempts you to sing along every time you listen. The first track, "Who Do You Love," is more intimate and nearly as good, and "Keep It All Hid" is another standout; the two songs share a loping rhythm that saves them from the organ-heavy droning of other, slower tracks.

Out of Tune is easy to listen to -- and that's just its trouble. As opposed to the members of similarly folksy Scottish band Belle and Sebastian, Halstead is not an adventurous enough songwriter to have constructed an album as quirky, varied or challenging as Belle and Sebastian's recent The Boy With the Arab Strap. On the other hand, none of the pared-down tracks on Out of Tune achieve the lovely, outspoken plainness of songs on Ask Me Tomorrow, Mojave 3's debut album. After "Some Kinda Angel," Out of Tune loses momentum; it's inertia that carries you along.