Two years removed from their first release, Don’t Talk of California, Chicago indie-rockers Honest Engines have built a reputation on hustle, word-of-mouth and… jazz? Indeed, most of the members have a background in jazz composition, which at first isn’t immediately apparent in their sound. But as University of Chicago Music Professor Travis Jackson has said, jazz can take on the broader definition of being “Open to different musical possibilities.” It is in this sense of possibility – of music as a journey – that Honest Engines have found their modus operandi.
A good atmospheric band knows where to end space. Honest Engines is a good atmospheric band. They have an instinctual sense of when to build and when to push forward, a trait used to great effect during their show before a packed house at Chicago’s Schubas Tavern.
“Dogsled” found the native Chicagoans lilting their way into the show with a laid-back buzz of guitar and keyboard that eventually intensified to a controlled frenzy. Immediately the template of “song-as-journey” was established, setting an epic tone for the 45-minute set.
Having fully come to life by the end of “Dogsled”, the Engines took the energy to another level with “Reeling”, a song in which guitarist Marcus Maloney provided a “Sunday Bloody Sunday” riff backed by the full force of a driving rhythm section. In songs like “Reeling”, Honest Engines prove that the build is not nearly as satisfying without the proper crescendo, and at their best, the music achieves both.
Drawing from the same delicate well as Ben Gibbard and Wayne Coyne, lead vocalist Steve Mulcahy is most intriguing when playing the foil; the delicate vocals matched against the propulsive wave of sound. Instead of undercutting the intensity, Mulcahy’s approach underscores the longing found in his lyrics. With an unassuming stage presence, Mulcahy was less a frontman than team player, content to let the music come to the forefront.
Instead of the established approach of quiet into loud, “El Jardin” achieved a consistent mid-tempo pace, with the band remaining in the same pocket from start to finish. On this track and others, bassist Nick Godden and drummer Matthew Hennessey provided an essential backbone to the sometimes airy proceedings. Without a concerted effort by the rhythm section to bracket down the songs to something more elemental, the ethereal nature of the vocals and Edge-like guitar had a chance to meander.
The meandering tendencies of the band were on display in the show finale, “Void”. Without a strong enough hook to hang the ambient strands, a sense of drift kept the song from ever hitting home. This was not a problem for the other two tracks found on their recent EP, Captain’s Log. Both the title track and “Asteroid” showcased the band’s sense of adventure, of songs assembling into unlikely creations. They provided a snapshot of a band on a journey to find their truest sound, and if the Schubas show was any indication, it looks like they may have found it.