No Engine: A Song Fell Out.

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1 & 7 September, Sitting Room Session
By Michael Hawksworth

At one point during this colourful but rambling pop rock revue, Fane Flaws tips his hand to show his song-writing process; “if you like [drop name of influential recording artist here] just take it and apply it” he brazenly declares. He’s always worn his influences on his sleeve, so I guess this is nothing new, though the songs he and his band, No Engine, are playing tonight are (well most of them anyway) new.

Flaws is a stylist, a showman, and, to draw a link to his other role as artist, an illustrator. Like a garrulous tour guide, he illustrates the musical sights with explanatory banter (or is it the other way round?). Of course, the man himself is a coordinate on the cultural map, and at this point he’s earned the right to play up to it – there’s the sense of an elder statesman of NZ ‘culcha’, hitching together a rollicking collection of ‘best-ofs’ and loves, all brightly painted with shtick, and taking that ol’ victory lap. And why not? Tucked in his back pocket he has a wallet full of cracking cultural deeds –  songwriter credits for The Crocodiles 1980 hit ‘Tears’, and the animated titles to cult NZ television music programme Radio with Pictures being my own personal favourites.    

I like the way his ledged and nutcracker face imprints itself on the things he does like a self-branding graphic. It’s as if he has detached from the ‘Toon-town cubist-style painting he’s hung behind the band. He throttles his guitar energetically to make it give up its chunky-funk riffs, part Marc Ribot, part David Byrne. He says, with a frog in his throat that makes him sound just like Sam Hunt, that the late 60s were the golden age of pop. Of course he’s wrong, it was the late 70s/early 80s, and he’s got the influences to prove it – Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, XTC, The Members, War’s ‘Low Rider’ – mostly R & B inflected boogie rock with a sense of humour.

Helping Flaws keep this thing on the rails, and I suspect marshalling his more wayward tendencies, is the terrific rhythm section of No Engine: Willy Devine, Andy Gladstone and Anton Wuts. When I hear this band, completed by the period perfect background vocal colourings provided by Margot Pierard and Nicole Taylor, I’m transported back to the live circuit in Wellington ’82 – ’85. I’m back inside The Oaks, or The Cricketer’s Arms, or some other live music bar whose name I’ve forgotten. The music is so of that time, despite the fact that much is new material. The rattling grooves are flamboyant and fun, and roll obliviously, sometimes even flippantly, right over the sometimes sensitive subjects Flaws tells us his lyrics are about, i.e. disaffected youth, spiritual encounters, and the drawn out deaths of the elderly.

No Engine is essentially a good time boogie band. This was a sitting room session hosted by local impresario and promoter Jamie Macphail and in this context sitting does mean sitting. And Listening. But I must say, my best experiences of No Engine have been on the dancefloor, where the importance of maintaining momentum and the imperatives of rhythm force everything else back to ride in the caboose.

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