Though their résumés read differently--ex-shoegazers from England at one end, erstwhile alt-country bard from Massachusetts on the other--both Mojave 3 and Joe Pernice have found an auburn redemption in the strummy elixir of Big Star-styled pop. Excuses for Travellers, ex-Slowdive front man Neil Halstead's third album of lazy, free-floating rehab-core, is his most refined yet, smoothing whatever Fender benders he had left in him to an autumnal gleam. Which is the record's greatest strength and most vexing weakness: This retrofitted country-folk-pop is so note-perfect it sometimes forgets to make human sense, Wurlitzered into a corner that Halstead's buffed by pacing countless times before. The problem isn't one of authenticity, or even of sincerity; it's the stretching fields of beige, where one acoustic guitar bleeds into the next without so much as a key change, that threaten the thing.
Halstead's heroes--Nick Drake and Alex Chilton, most notably--understood that sometimes a little blood had to be spilled to color the point; Halstead seems to think he can kill his demons with one long-ass minor chord. Still, moments of majesty like "Any Day Will Be Fine," which sounds like an older, wiser Teenage Fanclub if they hadn't let the Byrds get the better of them, pull immense beauty from the sheen, proving that bummed-out pop, patience-testing or not, still holds oceans of healing power.
Joe Pernice, who sings as though he takes a pint of key-lime molasses in his 13 cups of coffee, is as bummed, but he's not figured out how to clean himself up. "Once or twice to kill my pain/And once to bring it back again," he moans through a sparkling haze of chiming guitars on "Prince Valium," Big Tobacco's telltale opener. That sadomasochistic bent has always been at the heart of what Pernice does, and, again here, it's what makes his gently keening strum-alongs pound more compellingly than Halstead's. Last year's Chappaquiddick Skyline full-length scaled down the orchestral grandeur of 1998's Pernice Brothers disc Overcome by Happiness (Pernice rotates band names like a 12-string-clutching Will Oldham), and Big Tobacco takes it down even further, stressing the living-room aesthetic that Pernice commandeered in his days with the Scud Mountain Boys, when they'd record entire albums while sitting around a sticky kitchen table.
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Yet Big Tobacco plays to the setting's strengths, eschewing more than what's necessary to get these songs across and foregrounding Pernice's cracked croak. Not sure he's getting any better--he seems comfortable doing this black comedy (hold the comedy)--but he's making it, and making a glorious sound trying.