John Henry & the Engine

Sad Face of Yours EP

Apr 28, 2011 at 4:00 am

Boot-stomping harmonies and sweet, ragged fiddle lines populated I Don't Wanna Know, John Henry & the Engine's 2009 three-song seven-inch. It was a step away from the heartland rock that smoldered and smoked on the band's debut album, Under the Yellow Moon, though it appears that those old-timey country affectations were a passing fancy. It's back to business on Sad Face of Yours, an EP that follows the debut's reliance on steel-eyed Telecaster twang and small-town dramas shot in cinematic widescreen. Springsteen remains a touchstone for Henry, both in his husky vocals and melodramatic arrangements, though across the six-song disc, the lingering shadow of Darkness on the Edge of Town comes most immediately to mind on these minor-key songs. Henry's artfully strained voice can carry the weight most of the time; he may not be in the same league as Lucero's Ben Nichols and Crooked Fingers' Eric Bachmann, but he's showing promise on the farm team.

For this release, the band decamped to Nashville to record with Ken Coomer, who played drums in the final incarnation of Uncle Tupelo and kept time for Wilco through Summerteeth. By and large, though, Henry and company avoid the signifiers of Coomer's old outfits — no small task for a St. Louis band fascinated by the intersection of rock and country. Opening cut "Arizona Moon" hits the ground running with some Calexico-esque border music, part spaghetti-Western soundtrack and part fist-pumping rocker. That sprinting spirit continues with "Rations" and "Running Away" in particular. But even the more forceful songs don't quite give this collection enough momentum to carry it through (two piano ballads on a six-song disc is overkill, though closing cut "All I Ever Wanted" is a keeper). John Henry & the Engine has always been better suited to full-lengths — the previous seven-inch and this EP are good stop-gaps, but these songs crave the context of a unified whole.

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