[30 November 2009]
Hearing an album that doesn’t quite sound like anything you’ve heard before is always fun, if a bit illusory. There’s so much music out there and so little time to hear it all, and so for a band to give you something “new” is often as much a product of luck and your own listening habits as their inventiveness. Engineers’ 2005 debut managed to sound novel merely by combining two sounds I loved in a way I’d never heard before, and if you want to hear what Teenage Fanclub sounds like as a classic shoegaze band, I highly recommend it. The songwriting was straightforward and tuneful almost to a fault, but unlike a lot of shoegaze bands, Engineers had vocals that matched the enveloping uplift of their music. Their warm, burnished harmonies made Engineers feel different than either classic shoegaze or its more recent proponents. The effect was somewhat like Souvlaki-era Slowdive given vocal lessons by the Beach Boys, and while there’s not technically anything new about that, the album was so well-executed and comforting that it felt fresh.
If the big, bold blocks of colour and melody on Engineers were a bit like Duplo, though, the long-awaited, repeatedly delayed followup Three Fact Fader is Lego. You still have the same basic structures and forms; sonically you can’t really say that Engineers have moved on much at all. But in terms of melodic and compositional complexity, the album is a leap forward. While it isn’t as simply reassuring as the debut, this album is better in nearly every other respect, in a way that opens up lots of possibilities for their sound. And just like Lego, Engineers spend much of their sophomore effort proving they can build nearly anything with it.
Like a lot of shoegaze or shoegaze-derived acts, they also work best at album length. In fact, the vocals here are so luminous and such an intrinsic part of the sonic appeal of Engineers’ music that I only find myself catching bits of lyrics. Three Fact Fader is the rare (for me) album where I can honestly say that even after months of listening, I couldn’t pick out the songs by name, despite my love for them. If you ask me what I think of, say, “Sometimes I Realize”, I might draw a blank, but if you instead asked what I thought of the track that follows the expansive, Harmonia-sampling (and Michael Rother-approved) opener with a sense of forward motion (especially in the rhythm section) and rock crunch they’ve never quite managed before, I’d know exactly what you’re talking about. Some songs stand out for extraneous reasons: the passive aggression of “Song for Andy” (which appears to comment on their label problems much the same way Spoon did with “The Agony of Laffitte”/“Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now”), the string intro to “The Fear Has Gone”, or the more prominent electronics on the valedictory closer “What Pushed Us Together”. But these thirteen songs blend together until I can’t tell an “International Dirge” apart from a “Crawling From the Wreckage”. I just know I thoroughly enjoy both. And while the debut was in a sense more memorable, it kind of cheated; it’s hard to forget that a song is called “Home” or “Forgiveness” or “Come in Out of the Rain” if the band keeps singing the title over and over.
In a very real way, that kind of blurring is both fitting and valuable for the kind of music that Engineers make. Three Fact Fader is an album of impressions and fleeting moments (and hooks, tons of great, meaty hooks), rather than songs or statements. That quality makes the record surprisingly easy to listen to from the beginning, while at the same time constantly revealing new pleasures to the attentive listener. (Make no mistake: just in terms of sound design and production, this record is gorgeous.) The four-year layoff between albums wasn’t wholly necessary for or intended by the band, but unlike a lot of groups that find themselves with too much downtime, Engineers have produced an album that seems to have made good use of all that time. While the good Engineers was slightly too emotionally and sonically homogeneous to listen to more than sparingly, the group have advanced their sound and their songs in exactly the right ways. The result is an album that’s catchier than the debut, even as it’s less obvious—one that keeps the uplift and reassurance of their past work while allowing more shades of other emotions (anger, fear, doubt, sadness) to add colour. That marks Engineers as probably the best band working in the genre right now. And they’ve still got great harmonies, too.