Hayden / Neil Halstead

No one's really surprised anymore when a pensive singer-songwriter in a button-up shirt (or maybe a lovable old ringer tee) shows up on MTV or in the weekend pages of USA Today, wearing a terribly earnest look on his face and strumming his battered acoustic as though his 401(k) depended on it. Pete Yorn and Ryan Adams and David Gray and Jack Johnson have revisited the age of Jackson Browne and James Taylor and just in time for the post-September 11 New Sincerity that has made the work of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes seem something less than felicitous. But is there room in this current craze for new records by Canadian sad-sack Hayden Desser and English mope Neil Halstead--two guys who probably don't shave that often and definitely wouldn't consider a Gap ad a good career move?

Desser, who's so gloomy he can't even be bothered to use his last name, actually might have donned a pair of those khakis back in the mid-'90s, when a cloud of buzz surrounded his debut album, the stark, sullen Everything I Long For. Looking back now, it seems strange that the lo-fi sketches that made up that disc--much more like Sebadoh than anything Yorn and his peers have released--would have made a media star out of Hayden, however deft his way with a teary goodbye. And so it goes with Skyscraper National Park, his third album of woolly folk-pop and another step away from the spotlight-gleam of big-time accessibility. Not that the songs on Skyscraper aren't pretty: Opener "Street Car" and closer "Lullaby" are comely slices of rainy-day acoustic guitar, muted strings and Hayden's parched baritone, and he manages to keep the formula interesting throughout with the occasional dab of trippy Neil Young grunge or junky Tom Waits detailing. But Hayden isn't your little sister's singer-songwriter; when he croaks, "The day after the storm I didn't leave the house at all," on the funereal "Bass Song," you know it wasn't so he could catch that new Dave Matthews video.

Mojave 3 front man Neil Halstead is too intimate for his own good, too: His new solo album, Sleeping on Roads, sounds more like Nick Drake than casual Volkswagen drivers are likely to appreciate. That means carefully strummed acoustics and slowly unspooling melodies, of course, two commodities Roads boasts, along with a panoply of organs, bells and stringed instruments that rim Halstead's often skeletal songs with the autumnal glow Drake captured on Bryter Layter. But it also means observations like that in the delicate "Martha's Mantra (For the Pain)": "Now she says she won't do drugs/Because she found something to love/She cured herself of everything/There's nothing left but hair and skin." Not much hope here for Saturday Night Live spots, then--just the gorgeous, sorrowful whisper of loss.

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Mikael Wood

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