13 Engines

  • 13 Engines
  • Before Our Time (Nocturnal) 1987 
  • Byram Lake Blues (Nocturnal) 1989 
  • A Blur to Me Now (SBK) 1991 
  • Perpetual Motion Machine (EMI Music Canada/Atlantic) 1993 
  • Conquistador (Can. EMI) 1995  (Nettwerk) 1996 

This Toronto-area quartet started out playing loud, adolescent rock-pop with greater artistic ambitions than most such bands, both in the literate lyrics and in the broadly dynamic instrumental designs. While singer John Critchley (guitar, keyboards) and Australian émigré guitarist Mike Robbins write dramatic songs that cry out for intricate wide-screen arrangements, the group’s reliance on simple rock tools creates an exciting tension between grand imagination and basic execution. Fortunately, 13 Engines has the chops to keep the material from sounding shortchanged. If Before Our Time has a slight edge over the Neil Young-inflected Byram Lake Blues, it’s in the debut’s unselfconscious sense of exploration and discovery. But both albums (originally released on a Detroit indie and then combined on a single CD) are well worth hearing.

A Blur to Me Now, recorded in California by Young veteran David Briggs, brought 13 Engines into major-label clutches for the first time with no appreciable damage. Critchley’s production of Perpetual Motion Machine focuses the maturing band’s considerable strengths —memorable melodies, provocative lyrics, dynamic electric rock sizzle — as never before, revealing bits of influence as varied as glam-era Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock and Buzzcocks leader Pete Shelley. Consistently stirring, occasionally dramatic (“More”), rippingly loud (“Unconscience”) but equally able to tone it down (“Moment of Clarity” and the acoustic “What If We Don’t Get What We Want?”), the unpretentiously arty album lacked only a marketing gimmick (or a transcendent single, although “Smoke & Ashes” comes mighty close) to get 13 Engines onto the alt-hit parade.

Conquistador indulges Critchley’s fandom as never before: he channels the singing style of Hitchcock (occasionally switching to Shelley instead) accurately enough to force a disbelieving second look at the credits. The effect isn’t unpleasant, however. The tunefully nasty songs (“Cootie Girl” offers an ambivalent character description, while “Tailpipe Blues” invites an unspecified affronter to “wrap your lips around the tailpipe of my car”) don’t rely on novelty, compressing an efficient power pop sound with memorable melodies to carry the oblique lyrics. Two “wet dream” references are too many, but “Menefreghista,” “Beneath My Hand” and “Vermillion” are all superior creations.

[Ira Robbins]