ead singer Keeley Davis has decided that this would be a good time to lighten things up a bit. “Hey,” he says, tapping the microphone before him, as the levels are adjusted during Engine Down’s sound check. “Hey, hey!” Then suddenly, his eyes brighten and he peers into the crowd through his shock of stylized black hair. “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!”
Saying the quip backfired would be too strong a criticism, since it’s likely that no one in the sold-out crowd at Brownie’s tonight is even paying attention yet. No matter, though—the joke was a little too predictable to be funny, anyway. But the sincerity with which Davis delivered the one-liner was a surefire clue into the attitude of the Richmond, Virginia foursome—an attitude that would be driven home over the course of their set, a demeanor that lives and breathes on their third full length, the 2001 Demure. In a venue notorious for its cooler-than-thou character, in a city that lionizes its trendsetters and reviles the rest, Engine Down boldly go against the grain. They do so by playing music that’s decidedly genuine and absolutely earnest, with a deep reverence for all that’s passionate, pained, and glorious about music. They come not to control you, corrupt you, or even convert you. They simply want you to use their music as a method to stir what’s seated deep within yourself—and glory be if you let yourself feel it.
Tonight, this is most clearly depicted with their rendition of the ominous “Demure”, off that 2001 release of the same name. It’s a number that starts small and grows more brutal with every passing bar, driven by distortion-heavy guitar and bass and the distraught vocals of Davis. Though on record, their sound occasionally borders on overdone, Engine Down live is excessively raw, spiced with melodrama and burning with intensity. There’s also something orchestral about their music: their songs are drawn out, structured around shifting movements rather than interchanging verses and choruses. Davis, bassist Jason Wood and guitarist Jonathan Fuller thrash and head-bang, their motions both a reason for and a reaction to the immense, feedback heavy sound. Davis will stiffen up to deliver a poignant note and concentrated gaze, then it’s reeling again, head thrown back and forth, guitar pulsating, drummer Cornbread Compton thrusting, pushing. It’s the kind of spectacle that would seem more at home in an arena, coupled by blazing lights, projected to ten times size on giant screens, accompanied by the screaming fits of careening, moshing teenagers.
Speaking of teenagers, there’s something definitively adolescent about their music. I mean that neither as a jibe toward their musicianship—they play with a mature, focused energy—or their worth, in the way that the adjective is sometimes tossed about to mean “don’t take this seriously.” What’s adolescent about Engine Down is their ability to harness pure emotional output, without irony or regret; their ability to sing nakedly personal lyrics to a room full of strangers with as much confidence as they might sing The Star Spangled Banner. Now in my 20s, I got the same feeling listening to them as I did listening to Nine Inch Nails or Eddie Vedder as a sixteen-year old; and I have to admit that unapologetic angst, in these days of balking at the real, felt pretty damn good.
But it’s hard to tell tonight if people can to allow themselves to go there. (Tonight’s show is headlined by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, thus many in the audience seem to be newcomers to Engine Down.) A few hard core fans near the front of the venue crash, burn, and pick air guitars as the group play a number of songs off Demure and previous albums. But the majority of the crowd—again the cooler-than-thou New York thing—either don’t seem to enjoy the set or don’t want to let themselves enjoy it. A tragically hip fellow in front of me at one point starts head bobbing appreciatively, but quits as soon as he realizes he’s the only dude nearby digging in. Then again, Engine Down’s music is more sit-and-brood than it is get-up-and-dance, so it’s hard to assess exactly how the audience reacted. But I think it’s fair to say that, like Davis’ joke early on in the set, people may have not known what to do.
They end the night with the epic “Second of February”, a challenging track also off Demure. They have spent the night playing cacophonous poems, embellished with grungy posturing (at one point, bassist Jason Wood actually lifted his instrument above his head, in the distressed, destroy-it-all mania of Kurt Cobain.) On this number, they crumple and rebuild themselves, throw it all away, rip it apart note by note—until all that’s left is a soaking, exhausted crew of broken down boys.
Whether or not this is your type of thing (and to be honest, I’m not sure it’s mine), Engine Down have the ability to touch something deep within you. It may not be the heady part that enjoys a difficult guitar riff and a sharp lyrical turn; it may not be the groovy part that wants to jack your body to electroclash or pogo to a post-punk vibe. But, if you let them in, you may fondly recall that organic part of you that simply wanted music that rocked and riveted and wore your heart on its sleeve, while doggedly, mercifully, playing the soundtrack to your diary. And here it is, folks. No joke.