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Monday December 5th

Engine Down Falls Flat Thanks to Awful Vocal Phrasing

Engine Down
Two Stars

If anything can be said for Engine Down, it's that its name is right on target.

This becomes clear on the 10 tired tracks of despair and disillusion that make up Demure, the Richmond, Va.-based band's third LP.

The group has attempted here to escape from the overdone post-grunge genre with excessively introspective lyrics -- it misses its mark thanks to its lack of innovative instrumental experimentation. Consequently, the band ends up taking an aimless dive into the downtrodden and alienating the listener on its way.

The album's drawn-out style is characterized by repeating guitar triplets that, while sounding polished, don't vary much from song to song. The drum beats end up sounding suspended in air as the guitars drag on below. The listener is left hanging and waiting for something new to happen ... or just for the song to end.

Keeley Davis' muted vocals mesh well with the tone of the songs, giving them an appropriately mellow feel. It's his vocal phrasing, though, that makes them sound so despairing. His wide vocal range stretches the lyrics to an exaggerated scale, hyping them up well beyond their actual substance. They become so epic-sounding that they're difficult to absorb.

"Far From Now," opening with a prolonged, steady and down-beat guitar sequence, is one such problematic track on which Davis' voice doesn't compensate for the rest of the music's sluggishness. "If the burn digs deeper/Then this thought of me burns you worse," he half sings and half moans, letting the weighty words trudge across the droning guitars.

While the band tries for some variation on this track, it seems only to come in the form of making the guitars louder, instead of a much-needed change of pace. And though Davis' emphasis on the lyrics leaves time for reflection between lines, deciphering these cryptic words would require more reflection than most would probably care to do.

Enigmatic stream-of-consciousness lyrics like these could lend an admirable sense of mystery to the music if presented less pretentiously. As Davis relentlessly continues to draw the lyrics out, the listener feels farther and farther away. Imagine Robert Plant singing a local emo band's lyrics to the tune of "Stairway to Heaven." The ship is too big for the cargo.

Four drudging tracks later, "Second of February," in which Davis torturously describes a haunting deja-vu experience, seems like a breath of fresh air with its intense, pulsating guitar rhythm.

It's followed up by "Closed Call," which provides further welcomed variation from the guitars-drums-and-bass routine. For this one, Cornbread Compton puts down his drumsticks, lacing the song with an ominous-sounding piano sequence (think Radiohead's Amnesiac). Maura Davis' waif-like but beautiful guest vocals complete the album's strongest track.

But by comparison, this small triumph only makes the final tune, "Relief Sketch," all the more disappointing. The engine is down, and there may be no help for miles.

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