It’s hard to believe anything good could emerge at this late date from the 1990s British “shoegazer” movement, much less a pop record as terrific as “Puzzles Like You.” This is the fifth Mojave 3 album, featuring frontman/songwriter Neil Halstead and bassist Rachel Goswell, former core members of Slowdive. (Halstead released a well-received solo album in 2002, Goswell in 2004.)
But nothing they’ve done can match the pure pop beauty of “Puzzles Like You.” The mood is set by synths that sound very lightly powered, as if run on batteries. If there was such thing as an “acoustic synthesizer,” that might describe the twinkling sound of the record. The light, leaping melodies and full, multitrack harmonies evoke a kind of “California Dreamin'” as envisioned from Halstead’s Cornwall, England, or, conversely, the harmony rich 1960s British group the Hollies in full throe of their West Coast infatuation.
“Puzzles Like You” is densely stocked with potential top 40 hits: not soft rock, more like “warm rock.” Opener “Truck Driving Man” sounds like Belle & Sebastian with Chuck Berry’s pianist Johnnie Johnson. “Breaking the Ice” has the stature of a classic song copyright, while the gorgeous meditation on success and ambition, “Big Star Baby,” could be a hit for anyone who sings it: Johnny Rivers, to pull one name out of the hat, would be a particularly good fit; it would suit Paul Westerberg and, of course, Alex Chilton. The pop knack is so sure-handed and pleasing that there does not seem to be anything to stop Mojave 3 from becoming an ever-so-slightly slightly left-of-center answer to Maroon 5. — Wayne Robins