The haze that enveloped the Knitting Factory Friday night was caused not by L.A.’s persistent marine layer but by Neil Halstead and Sid Hillman. In separate solo sets, the singer-songwriters’ perfs were long on atmospheric mood but short on energy.
Halstead, taking a break from his job fronting the Mojave 3, recently released his first solo album, “Sleeping on Roads” (4AD). Luxuriating in romantic melancholy, the album cushions Halstead’s spare melodies in echo and sustain, a finely honed sound as elegantly plush as the prose of Paul Auster. Backed only by his acoustic guitar (and occasional pedal steel swells provided by Raymond Richards), affecting songs such as “Two Stones in My Pocket” felt cut off and ingrown. With his bedhead, mumbled comments and breathy voice that turns even the hardest consonants into whispers, Halstead’s Nick Drake-style reticence would have been entrancing in the friendly confines of a club such as Largo, but in the Knitting Factory’s emotionally cool showroom, what could have been hypnotic came off as simply sleepy.
With Hillman’s firm jaw, horn-rimmed glasses and stiff Stetson, his set was angular where Halstead’s was elliptical. On his second album with the Sid Hillman Quartet, “Volume Two” (Interstate Records), the nephew of former Byrd and Burrito Brother Chris Hillman writes Quaalude cowboy music, parched ballads along the lines of Sparklehorse and Giant Sand, music for when the bars are closed but you don’t want to go home. With his burnished, straightforward voice and long, flat vowels, he sounds as straight and lonely as a desert back road. Accompanied only by his slightly out-of-tune electric guitar, which gave the songs the tousled, mournful quality of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” Hillman came off as an intriguing, if unfocused, performer.