American Music Club’s Engine is an album made of small tragedies. From broken relationships to injured alcoholics, each song catalogues a dark moment in somebody’s life. Right from the very start there is a sense of foreboding. “Big Night”, is a cello and acoustic guitar dirge, that describes a battered but ultimately loving and functioning relationship. Despite the dark, minor key of the song and the opening line of “Big nights are black and blue”, there is a sense of hope in this story, unlike many of the other tracks on this record.
Whilst Mark Eitzel’s poetically melancholy lyrics throughout Engine serve as the unifying feature of the album, the sound and structure of each song is different from one track to the next. From the rich cello drones of “Big Night” to the sparse guitar of “Mom’s TV” to the feedback squeal of “Art of Love” to the accordion on “This Year”, each song has a unique sound and energy to it. Despite the variance, the different styles and instrumentation work wonderfully with the lyrics and Eitzel’s voice, helping to keep, what at times can be a very dark album, from becoming overwhelming. Credit is also due here to producer Tom Mallon (who went on to work with Thin White Rope as well as engineering Chris Isaak's Wicked Game), for managing to craft the diverse sounds and styles of Engine into a fully cohesive album.
“Outside This Bar” is the album’s stand out song by quite a distance. An energetic (at least in relation to the rest of the album) anthem of angst and booze, the lyrics are an almost Bukowski-esque tale of drunken pain and confusion. With the line “Outside this bar how does anyone survive”, the narrator perfectly demonstrates his sense of entrapment and confusion at how anyone lives a lifestyle different to his own alcohol fuelled existence. The instrumentation and vocal delivery of this track also lends a feeling of anger to the song. It’s as if the desperation on display would lack the impact it has unless it was delivered with such force. The song also features the odd combination of a distorted sounding rhythm guitar and a clean lead guitar, cleverly reversing the classic sound combination that rock bands have used for decades.
“Clouds” traverses similar compositional territory to “Outside This Bar”, with layers of fuzzy guitar sitting below the barely contained contempt in Eitzel's vocals. The gentler “Nightwatchman” has an almost shoegaze feel to it with strummed acoustic chords beneath a chiming lead guitar. “Art of Love” on the other hand is a heavy, chugging monolith of a song that would not have sounded out of place on any number of records coming out of Seattle around the same time.
The depth and melancholy on display here are a prime example of why American Music Club have the dubious honour of being called the progenitors of “Slowcore”, an overly simplistic term for a series of introspective american indie rock bands. Whilst it's plain to see what inspiration bands like Red House Painters and Idaho have taken from them, the music on Engine is too wide ranging to be held under a single sub-sub-genre.
This was the San Francisco based band's second album, released in 1987. It marks a significant leap forward from their debut (1985’s The Restless Stranger) presenting them as a band with incredible musical and emotional depth. Whilst it may not be a go to party record, as a listening experience it is completely engrossing. Each song serves almost as a short story and the album as a collection of them.