Neil Halstead - Oh ! Mighty Engine
You approach certain artists with due respect even if you've drifted apart a bit. Halstead gets the benefit of the doubt before I even take the disc out of its sleeve for his steering role in the mostly marvellous and cruelly undervalued Slowdive, stalwarts of the much-maligned 'shoe-gazing' pack. (How I hate having to even write the damnnable phrase.) Back in the late 80s and early 90s, when the sonics of the likes of Curve, Ride, Lush provided delicious respite from the lumpen antics of Madchester, at least one half of the UK's 'alternative' scene brimmed with fire and fantasy. Slowdive, on an extremely miserable night in scenic Stoke in 1991, tore my head off with one of the most electrifying, committed live performances I've ever seen. It shimmers to this day. Heaven knows what they were on that night; maybe it was that all-too-rare but beautiful synergy between band and audience. The kind of communal energy that lifts the mundane to the magical. Whatever, nearly two decades of gig-going later, it ranks high.
'Oh ! Mighty Engine', Halstead's first since 2002's 'Sleeping on Roads', is, of course, a very different beast. I liked that album quite a lot but this collection doesn't match it. The shuffling folk rock that Halstead has peddled for pretty much all of his post-Slowdive career (whether under the Mojave 3 banner or solo) is still the method of choice but this time it's taken down a notch : this new collection is a whisper of an album. Gentle acoustic arpeggios, hushed vocals and the odd rattle of percussion create a mood not dissimilar to, say, Goldfrapp's 'Clowns' or Nick Drake's 'River Man'. I'd also hazard a guess that Halstead has time for pre-electric Bolan. It's a heady mix but, I'm afraid, not an entirely arresting one. It's one thing applauding the labour but 'Oh ! Mighty Engine' is so committedly hushed that staying with it becomes difficult. And I hate saying that because this is clearly a work of heart and soul and Halstead is a genuine talent, no doubt. But by the time you breathe a sigh of relief when it finally, well, gets going with the introduction of a rimshot here and there on 'A Gentle Heart', 'Oh ! Mighty Engine' has run out of road. Proof positive that to admire is not necessarily to love, that a warm record can still leave you a little cold. Neil, you'll think I'm an absolute t**t but here's an idea : what say you get in touch with Rachel, dust off those Rickenbackers and, well, you know ... do the right thing ?