Best tunes of 2002: #24 Neil Halstead “See you on rooftops”

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On a post that appeared a couple of years ago on these pages, I wrote about how I was introduced to Mojave 3 by my friend Tim when he convinced me to claim an extra ticket he had for their show at the Legendary Horseshoe. Just over a year and a half after that night, I was living in Ottawa, after having moved there from Toronto the previous fall, and reading the local entertainment weekly, Ottawa Xpress (sadly defunct), when I came across an article on Neil Halstead. I’m not sure why I started reading the piece because I didn’t yet readily connect the name with the lead vocalist of Mojave 3 (and Slowdive, for that matter). Perhaps the paper was thin that week and I still had some bus ride to go. Needless to say, the article made that particular connection clear for me within sentences and I read on to learn he was playing in Ottawa later that very week.

The fact that it had been months since I had seen any live music probably fed my sudden urge to see the show. One of the reasons I hadn’t seen one in so long, however, was our lack of funds so I needed to somehow convince Victoria, whose move to Ottawa precipitated mine, that the show was a ‘necessity’. In the end, we went, though don’t ask me what argument I used. I pre-purchased tickets at a local record shop (also now defunct) and we walked down to the Byward market on a Saturday night. We had never been to the Mercury Lounge before and haven’t been since (that one is still there) but it was a nice intimate space for an acoustic show, which is exactly what Halstead (and his opener, Sid Hillman) presented us with. All of the material during his set was new to both Victoria and me but I remember really enjoying it. We didn’t spring for any drinks that night but certainly bought the CD copy of Halstead’s solo debut, “Sleeping on roads”, on the way out the door.

“See you on rooftops” is track three on this very album and somewhat stands out from the rest. It takes the ball of string that was rolled up tightly with Halstead’s dreamy folk rock in Mojave 3 and launches it off into space. While out there amongst the constellations, the string unravels a bit, the loose beat, string synth line, and Atari sounds and lasers get the space boots tapping. Halstead picks out the stars and sings softly to each of them, childlike and hopeful, wooing any sort of life out there to come to take him away. The song ends in a blissed out cacophony that would make any of his counterparts from the original shoegaze movement green with envy. And all you need to do is lay back to bask in its glory.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.

Best albums of 1998: The honourable mentions (aka #10 through #6)

Happy Thursday! And welcome to my Throwback Thursday (#tbt) best albums of the year series. I know. I know. I just finished my series on 2008 two weeks ago and here I am starting 1998.

Well, there’s a good reason for that. I came to the realization while writing up the last list that I might have started things off behind the eight ball last year when I instituted these series and I thought I would try playing catch up and do two years worth of these this year. We’ll see if I can keep this up. The odds aren’t in my favour, to be honest.

Anyway, 1998. After the great year for British Rock that was 1997, the following year felt a bit of a letdown. How could it not? So I found myself actively looking for great new music but not necessarily finding it and instead, just settled into the same music from the previous few years. Hence, the year 1998 started a cycle of two or three years of musical malaise for me that only came to an end with the indie rock resurgence in 2001.

On a personal note, the year started with my last few months of post-secondary education life and then, in the fall, I moved downtown and started working full-time at my previously part-time job. My employers at the time, Stephenson’s Rent-all, put me in their management training program and so started my adult life. My pay wasn’t great and my rent was high so it still felt like I was living the life of the starving student. As such, I couldn’t always afford to buy the few CDs that caught my fancy and given the Internet was still a number of years away from streaming, I didn’t even hear most of the albums on this list until later on.

All this aside, I did manage to cobble together a list of ten great albums from 1998 and below are the first five. If you don’t know the trick by now, I will be featuring the next five, an album each Thursday, over the next five weeks. Enjoy the nostalgia ride with me.


#10 Sloan “Navy blues”

I finally gave in and got into Sloan with their third record, “One chord to another”. I had really, really disliked “Underwhelmed”, the first single off their first record “Smeared”, but really dug everything I heard from them after that on the radio. And, of course, in 1990s Canada with the Can Con rules, they were played a lot. Unfortunately, due to the same reasons I mentioned above, I didn’t get around to listening to “Navy blues” until a number of years after its release, though I was definitely knee deep in its singles. A bit harder than their previous two records, this record still features plenty of harmonies, diverse songwriting, and Beatle-esque pop rock sensibilities.

Gateway tune: Money city maniacs


#9 Cake “Prolonging the magic”

Here is another album whose singles were all over alternative radio, at least in Toronto, in the late 1990s. It got so bad that every time the song below came on the radio at my workplace, or even those of us who worked with him even hinted at singing the chorus line, a colleague of mine would be driven to fits and rants. Cake’s sound is instantly recognizable with its heavy bass focus, regular use of horns, and frontman John McCrea’s deep sing speak vocals. And “Prolonging the magic”, Cake’s third album, was likely the one that firmly established the band in our collective consciousness. Like it or not, you can’t deny how much fun this music is.

Gateway tune: Sheep go to heaven


#8 Embrace “The good will out”

British band Embrace (not to be confused with the American hardcore punk band of the same name) released their debut a year or two too late, arriving tardy to the BritPop party. “The good will out” sold very well and was reviewed well enough by the British press but it wasn’t long before the backlash adhered to the flailing movement tarred them with a brush as coattail hangers. It’s unfortunate really because I truly liked the album – its rockers getting me sufficiently riled and its ballads appealing to my sappier side. The album and group bridged the gap between Britpop and post-Britpop and were at the vanguard of passionate pop bands that included the likes of Travis, Keane, and Coldplay, a factoid that might sway you to love or hate them.

Gateway tune: All you good good people


#7 Mojave 3 “Out of tune”

Mojave 3 was formed when Slowdive was dropped from Creation and Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell, and Ian McCutcheon decided to switch gears and move towards a slightly folkier sound. After their lovely debut, 1996’s “Ask me tomorrow”, Simon Rowe (Chapterhouse) and Alan Forrester were added to fill out the sound and the result was this album, their sophomore. Though it’s not my favourite of their work, all of their albums are pretty consistently great. They rock in a more subtle way, Halstead’s soothing vocals is the butter on the fresh out of the oven croissants and the rest of the band follow his lead, adding plenty of lovely textures to unfold.

Gateway tune: Who do you love?


#6 Rufus Wainwright “Rufus Wainwright”

The first time I heard Rufus Wainwright was one night when I took the subway downtown to visit my friend Mark, who had just moved into a new apartment in Little Italy with some roommates I had never met. When I got there, Mark and his roommates had already started in on the beers and this self-titled debut was playing. It was so jarring and different than pretty much everything I was listening to at the time but yet it appealed to me. I remember mentioning that it reminded me of early Tom Waits with some of the vocals of a young Lou Reed and I asked who it was. The name stuck with me because it wasn’t a common one. I didn’t learn until much later that he was the progeny of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and the sibling of Martha (who appears on the album as well). Coincidentally, Rufus Wainwright appeared on some Canadian daytime talk show a few days later, further impressing me with his theatrics and obvious talent at the keys, and I promptly went out to buy the CD.

Gateway tune: April fools


Check back next Thursday for album #5 on this list. In the meantime, you can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 2000: #6 Mojave 3 “Return to sender”

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It was Saturday afternoon, September 30, 2000, and I was at work, nearing the end of my shift. I called Tim because I had a hankering to go out and was curious to see what my friends were doing. “I know what you’re going to do tonight,” Tim proclaimed, much like Hunter S. Thompson’s lawyer might have done in ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’. “You’re coming with me to see Mojave 3 at the Horseshoe tonight!” It was fortuitous for him and for me that he had an extra ticket for the show and was looking for someone to claim it. I had never really listened to Mojave 3 before but I was game.

I don’t really remember many details of the show, given the amounts of cheap draft consumed that night, but I’ve got two that I can relay. The first is that I must’ve really enjoyed it because I went out the very next day to purchase their latest disc, 2000’s “Excuses for travellers”. The second is a short conversation that transpired on the way out the Legendary Horseshoe after the show that will live on in infamy. Tim was saying something about how Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell had gone all Cowboy Junkies with Mojave 3. And I drunkenly proclaimed, “Tim, you have no concept of genre.” He just looked at me, incredulous, and said, “I don’t even know how to respond to that.”

I don’t want to put more words in his mouth than necessary but Tim was probably referring Halstead’s and Goswell’s pointed shift in musical direction after they disbanded their original band, Slowdive, and formed Mojave 3 with another Slowdive member, Ian McCutcheon. By 2000, they had added Alan Forrester and Chapterhouse’s Simon Rowe to their roster but they never did change the three in their name to a five. They were also on album number three by this time and had firmly defined their sound, as atmospheric as anything their first band would’ve been proud of but with a country and folk tinge, which is likely where Tim dug up his Cowboy Junkies reference.

“Return to sender” is a boppy number that dances along to Halstead’s gentle acoustic strumming and his soft and plaintive vocals. The jaunty drumming, the banjo twang, twinkling keys, and harmonica flourishes only to serve to add to the wistful joy. And all that’s great but for me, this song is elevated above others of its type by the lyrics.

I went looking for a priest
I said say something please
I don’t want to live my life all alone
He said god will take care
Of those that help themselves
But you look pretty screwed
Send a letter

So all this to say, after years of listening to this song and catching up on the rest of Mojave 3’s back catalogue, I may be willing to concede that Tim may have had something with the Cowboy Junkies comparison. (But I still stand by my statement about his lack of genre sensibilities.)

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2000 list, click here.