Palindrome Hunches

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Four years after his last solo album and with Mojave 3 on hiatus, Neil Halstead does not appear to be a man in a rush. A listen to Palindrome Hunches would suggest that he has been spending his time wisely. His first two albums, Sleeping on Roads and This Mighty Engine surprised some, with Halstead moving away from the Americana that drove Mojave 3’s sound towards acoustic folk with a more distinctively English feel. Whilst this, his third album, is by no means a radical departure from the previous two, it represents a considerable step up in quality. The lapses into occasionally irksome whimsy that punctuated This Mighty Engine have largely gone and the record has a coherence to it that has been missing in the past. A lot of this is has to be put down to Halstead teaming up with members of Oxfordshire folkies Band of Hope and rejecting a studio for recording live in a school music room. Whilst his previous albums were hardly a wall of sound, the instrumentation this time around has been pared back even further, with most songs consisting of only guitar, double bass, piano and violin. The effect has been to produce a record that sounds intimate and surprisingly rich. The album starts with "Digging Shelters", which perfectly sets the scene for what’s to come. Images of snow, the north wind and empty roads are perfectly complemented by a sparse arrangement of guitar and simple piano with Ben Smith adding some lovely violin. Even better is to come and the highlight of the album is "Wittgenstein’s Arm", which is perhaps the best illustration of how far Halstead has come as a songwriter. It tells the story of the concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who played on following the amputation of his right arm in World War I and lost three brothers to suicide. "Death runs deep in this family / Write a song for the left hand only / Lost my arm in the first great war / Wish I’d never learned that piano before" he sings in his mellifluous mumble. It’s a lovely, dark and poignant thing that unravels over the course of six minutes but never comes close to overstaying its welcome. Elsewhere, "Tied To You" conjures up a tightly wound sense of impending dread that evokes comparisons to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, while  "Full Moon Rising" deals with getting older and working out what to do with life with lines like "driving past the old school building, always looking for something". Spin the bottle and Sandy are bittersweet tales of lost love. The album is not without its faults, however. On the title track, whimsy creeps back and a "Kansas City Girl" is presented with a list of palindromes such as "Do geese see god" and "A Toyota’s a Toyota".  “I wanted to write a song that was the same forward and backward but it didn’t quite work out” Halstead has attempted to explain. You’re right Neil, it didn’t. Then there’s "Hey Daydreamer", whose heartfelt call for wanting more from life than the everyday is somewhat undermined by the plinky plonk piano that results in it sounding like a heavily sedated Chas n’ Dave. These are small quibbles however, and overall the album is a quiet, understated success. "Don’t worry if you don’t hear nothing for a time, it’s just my way" Halstead sings on the closer "Loose Change". It may be a while coming, but Palindrome Hunches would suggest that what he does next may well be worth waiting for. Why rush a good thing?

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