Personnel: Neil Halstead (vocals, guitar); Kevin Wells (banjo); Ben Smith (violin); Paul Whitty (piano); Nick Holton (harmonium, glockenspiel, background vocals); Drew Milloy (double bass); Aim‚e Craddock (background vocals).
Audio Mixer: John Cornfield.
Recording information: Firtree School, Wallingford (2011-03-18_2011-03-21&2011-).
Photographers: Emmett Malloy; Hilary Malloy; Sarah Smith .
On his third solo album, Palindrome Hunches, Neil Halstead strips another layer off his already quiet and subtle sound. Sleeping On Roads featured a sound not too far from that of his band Mojave 3, though it was more Nick Drake-influenced and hushed; Oh! Mighty Engine cut the instrumentation pretty much in half, and on much of Palindrome, he's mainly down to his beautifully rich vocals and acoustic guitar, backed by double bass and sometimes piano. There are regular appearances by violins too, but thanks to the dry production and the recorded live feel, the album has an immediacy that gives the impression that Neil and his friends are playing in your living room. Call it his Pink Moon, only with less desperation. He probably didn't drop off the album unannounced at his label, more likely he off-handedly passed the tapes over to his boss (Jack Johnson) after a late afternoon surfing outing. Like the rest of his solo work, Palindrome has an easygoing charm and Halstead hasn't lost any of his ability to write catchy choruses (especially on "Bad Drug and Minor Chords" and the unusually upbeat "Hey Daydreamer"), to break a heart with a harmony, or to create a perfect mood of resigned melancholy. The sparse arrangements this time out mean that the songs and Halstead's voice are the focus and he delivers a predictably strong batch that never skimps on melody and often reaches beyond the late-night campfire strum to something darker and more foreboding (like minor-chord "Tied to You," which features the fullest sound on the album and uses it to great, spooky effect). Mostly, though, the album sits in the sweet spot between pleasing to the ear and warming to the heart, with only the slightly-too-cute title track letting down the side a touch. As he drifts further from his shoegaze roots with Slowdive and his country-pop explorations with Mojave 3, Halstead gets closer to creating music that transmits his bare soul to the listener without much sonic trickery to get in the way. In the wrong hands, such a Spartan approach could end up boring, but in Halstead's case, it's completely transfixing and true. ~ Tim Sendra