There”s an oddly special place in my musical heart for the glockenspiel. In no way do I claim that the glockenspiel the percussion instrument with a series of metal bars tuned to the chromatic scale and played with two light hammers is underused in today”s pop and folk music. Rather, the properly used glock is a tasteful addition to the mix of any singer-songwriter in search of a moody, melancholic sound such as Neil Halstead on his first solo effort, Sleeping On Roads.
Halstead, frontman of the British band Mojave 3, plays the glock himself on the new album. In addition to the glock, Halstead also enlists an eclectic variety of instrumentation to complement his acoustic guitar and throaty vocals. The production is deft and sure throughout Sleeping On Roads, and Halstead is able to locate a necessarily delicate balance between the trumpet, banjo, wah-dobro, cello, hammond, piano and computer.
The nine-song album clocks in at almost 50 minutes, meaning that the tracks average over five minutes each. Most songs take root in Halstead”s soft, finger-style guitar and halcyon vocals. And the plethora of instrumentation, instead of sounding like pretentious ornamentation, melds effortlessly into Halstead”s melodies that strike me as, well, right on.
If anything, one might accuse Halstead”s songs of sounding a bit too similar. Maybe. But I”ve always been of the mind that, if the same is good, then more of the same is even better. For that matter, though, it is difficult to single out any track as a winner because the album, as a whole, is a winner: A fine attempt at quasi-folk that steers clear of clich and the hackneyed.
“See You On Rooftops” is the album”s most rocking number though “rocking” is a relative term. Halstead makes fine use of the caesura to quell the song”s emotion just as it reaches a zenith. It then floats away on a majestic coda that reaches past the six-minute mark. Halstead seems to use an intercom to sing “Martha”s Mantra (For The Pain).” It sounds like an elegy: Simply Halstead”s guitar and the haunting refrain of the song”s subtitle woven through the lyrics that explore the biggest of subjects God and sex. The album”s title track is a tasteful confection of banjo, dobro and hammond. But everything remains subdued, including Halstead”s try at a country twang the only piece of Americana on this thoroughly British-sounding album.
Clearly focused on the “sound” of the album, Halstead ventures away from traditional song structures to evoke an atmosphere and ambience that is truly original. It”s almost scary how good these compositions might sound without any lyrics. Halstead”s strength, however, is his pen he writes intelligent lyrics that stunningly intimate a fragile and lovelorn soul. It”s no wonder that he gets Nick Drake comparisons.