album reviews

Neil Halstead
Oh! Mighty Engine
Brushfire Records (2008)

Neil Halstead's music isn't (and never really has been) truly carefree; while his songs sound effortless, they are laced with melancholy, and his hushed voice adds to that reflective feel.

That's why, on the surface, it seems odd for Halstead to release his second solo album, "Oh! Mighty Engine," on Brushfire Records, the label run by surfer dude Jack Johnson. But though it may be a stretch from the perspective of his previous bands, the dreamy shoegaze outfit Slowdive and the Americana group Mojave 3, the pairing works oddly well with his solo material.

"Engine" is not adult alterna-rock by any stretch, but it does have the same lilting, laid-back approach as much of Johnson's work.

The leisurely pace of "Witless or Wise" makes his whisper "I don't think so/No, I don't think so at all" all the more heartbreaking, while the interplay between piano and Halstead's softly plucked guitar on "No Mercy for the Muse" shows his ability to make wistfulness sound pleasantly enticing.

Out of context of his earlier bands' diverse sounds, Halstead might seem like a one-trick pony -- much of "Engine" has the same unhurried tempo, gentle vocals and slightly dejected (yet never depressed) tone -- but it's one trick that Halstead does exceptionally well. These tunes are beautiful and charming in a mellow, understated way.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 20 March 2009, Page WE07
.: Oh! Mighty Engine on