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Mojave 3

Think of California and all its empty, wide open spaces: the sun-baked desert, stretching for hundreds of uninhabited miles in every direction, ornamented by nothing more than Joshua trees and sagebrush and the occasional lost traveler; the bright ribbons of out-of-the-way two-lane highway winding through green-brown hills that look as if they've been molded by celestial hands; the long gray beaches scattered with pieces of shiny driftwood, interminably pounded by the cold Pacific. That's the landscape Mojave 3's airy majestic ballads of love, loss, and loneliness conjure. Theirs is the music of Dylan, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons, bleached out and slowed down to suit the topography and the mood of the edge of the world.

So with all the banjo and pedal steel, the references to "Vegas and the desert strips," and the uniquely American folk and countryisms that haunt this music, you'd be excused for not guessing that Mojave 3 is an English band -- albeit one whose surf-happy members are obsessed with Americana. In fact, the group's core members -- singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Neil Halstead, singer/bassist Rachel Goswell, and drummer Ian McCutcheon -- formerly belonged to the seminal English shoegazer outfit Slowdive. Keyboardist Alan Forrester and guitarist Simon Rowe (formerly of Chapterhouse) complete the band. Mojave 3 first emerged in 1995 and were quickly signed to 4AD on the strength of their first demo. They released their hushed, desolate debut album, Ask Me Tomorrow, in 1995, and followed that up with the more energetic Out of Tune in 1998. Two years later they returned with Excuses for Travellers, which features the stark but luminous "In Love with a View" and the sweet, classic "Return to Sender."

If you listen to Mojave 3 carefully, you can hear some of Slowdive's underlying aesthetics. But Halstead and co. have stepped out from beneath the crushingly beautiful walls of guitar- and effects-driven noise for which their old band was so renowned, choosing here to focus on songs instead of sheer sound. The results are revelatory: the music is nakedly honest, sometimes sad, but not without its ecstatic moments. Mojave 3's songs start simply, often with nothing more than acoustic guitar, percussion, and Halstead's high fragile voice, then build tragically, adding textural flourishes of Moog and Hammond organ, pedal steel, trumpet, and trombone, arriving at last at tear duct-loosening choruses. There's a joyful dusty melancholy throughout, a kind of glad yearning, a graceful willingness to take the bitter with the sweet that's uncommon, refreshing, and breathtakingly beautiful.