Another day, another math rock band. That means lots of supposedly interesting time signatures that never creep into 4/4, guitar riffs that seem more intent on infuriating than being enjoyable, and quite possibly the kitchen sink thrown in just to be “adventurous”. Oh, there have been some enjoyable math rock groups along the line, but Check Engine isn’t one of them. In fact, their music is so meticulously mediocre that one can only hope for a quick disappearing act by the band.
Not that that’s entirely likely to happen, as a couple of the members here (guitarist Chris Daly and saxophonist Steve Sostak) are also in the group Sweep the Leg Johnny, another schizoid band destined to rattle a few tempers with their jagged sound. Alas, the sax work here is a bit smoother than that of Johnny’s, but that doesn’t make the music any easier to get into.
For what it’s worth, the most interesting thing about Check Engine is their album art and song titles. With a cover featuring a guy in a snazzy business suit that looks straight out of a Sears catalog circa 1977 standing in an elevator with a bunch of sheep dressed in business suits, you’d think that perhaps this might be an interesting album of merit. Not so. The song titles, among them “I’ll See You in Two and Two”, “Nobody Ever Tells Jenny Anything, Ever”, and “Where’s My Social Worker?” also seem to indicate some kind of strange bent. But then, other titles like “She Asked Me Some Questions, and I Answered Them” and “So, We’ve Got Some Balls Can Balls. What Else Do We Got?” border on the obnoxiously pretentious. And well, that description suits Check Engine perfectly.
Do bands like this just set out to make music so obtuse and aggravating that they just don’t care if people dig it? Perhaps, but it’s worth dragging out the old P.T. Barnum quote here again without actually quoting it (although the CD should probably be sold with a sign that reads “This Way to the Egress” just the same). So let’s cut to the chase: Steve Sostak’s saxophone sounds positively ridiculous in this band. As the guitars and rhythm section clang away unscrupulously, Sostak’s instrument wails away sounding not unlike a lost clarinet searching for a song. On top of that, Joe Cannon’s vocal delivery is so out of place and poor that it takes every last effort on the brain cells to just try and ignore it and focus on the music.
At times, such as on “Where’s My Social Worker?”, the band recalls Frank Zappa and the Mothers circa Weasles Ripped My Flesh. Unfortunately for Check Engine, the band doesn’t have an ounce of the discipline or overall talent that Zappa’s group had. Rather than taking the abstract and creating something worth inspecting, they instead decide to just clamor away in hopes of finding something original. But noise will always be noise, no matter how many pretentious people might like to label outright banging away as Art. If we’re going to go that route, we might as well hold up the movie Spice World in the same light.
Bands like Check Engine seem to be doing it all for themselves. If someone listens, fine, if not, fine. But why bother to release such nonsense? Although, to be sure, someone will probably write in and tell me how wrong I am, that I listen to Radiohead and Belle and Sebastian and need to clean my ears or fuck off or something of that nature. Just to clear this up, I detest both of the aforementioned groups, and my ears are just fine, thank you.
Occasionally, the band enters some “normal” sounding territory with “She Asked Me Some Questions”, but again, Cannon’s vocals are so bad that he deep sixes the effort. And on the inappropriately titled “Pain Don’t Hurt”, what could have been the strongest sounding tune on the disc turns into another pile of mush after 30 seconds thanks to you guessed it, Cannon and Sostak. Note to Check Engine: making enjoyable music that could win over more than a handful of fans is not a crime. Indeed, Zappa did it quite well with his vast experiments, and newer groups like Old Time Relijun are extremely exciting with their use of cutthroat abstraction.
That said, fans of Sweep the Leg Johnny might find enough to get into here. And who knows, maybe there is an audience for such noodling out there. But the band’s name should give you all the warning you’ll need. Proceed with caution, the ride ahead is certainly going to be risky on the pleasure meter.