Album Review: Dalia Davis’s “Keep a Clean Engine” — A Gifted Craftsperson with a Pop-Friendly Voice

By Jason M. Rubin

Now that the pandemic dust has settled, Dalia Davis’s album warrants excavating and shining a long-awaited spotlight on.

Dalia Davis, under different names, has been a mainstay of the local music scene for decades. Her most recent album, Keep a Clean Engine, came out in late 2019, just in time to be swallowed up by the Covid-19 lockdown. Now that the pandemic dust has settled, this is a recording that warrants excavating and shining a long-awaited spotlight on.

A Berklee alum, Davis checks off a lot of boxes on this release. She wrote all but three of the 12 songs, does lead and background vocals, and plays acoustic guitar, keyboards, bass, drums, and percussion. She also produced and arranged the whole affair. This is not, however, a one-woman show. Backed on most tracks by a core band comprising Billy Carl Mancini on guitar, McGregor McGehee on bass, and Larry Finn on drums, Davis welcomes a number of notable guests and friends, including blues legend Chris Stovall Brown on slide guitar and Duke Robillard Band drummer Mark Teixeira (not the former baseball player).

As a singer/songwriter, Davis is a gifted craftsperson with a pop-friendly voice. Her melodies flow smoothly and her lyrics reflect an insightful — but not overly heavy — assessment of life experiences. Davis’s arrangements shapeshift her core musical style to cover a range of genres, including folk, pop, rock, gospel, soul, and jazz. In fact, one of the highlights of the album is a churchy take on Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” replete with organ swells that are signature to both gospel music and Dylan’s early electric period. Her elegant piano playing and soulful singing, though, are suitably front and center.

Another cover, “Beatles Bridges,” is a clever and insanely catchy medley of two-line excerpts from 14 different Lennon/McCartney Beatles songs over the course of the five-minute track. It’s a good mix of top-shelf classics (“I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Nowhere Man”) and deep cuts (“This Boy,” “I’ll Get You”) that shows off Davis’s arranging skills.

The album opens with “The Power of One,” a bold and ballsy anthem about going it alone. “I can face my fears at last,” she sings, while Mancini’s crunchy electric guitar brings the heat. That’s followed by a song of support to someone contemplating suicide, “Don’t Give Up the Fight” (“You gotta have hope you’ll be happy again”). It’s actually a happier-sounding song than it sounds.

“Eleven and a Half” is a pretty acoustic song about being that age. “Peace” is a lament about the geopolitical shitshow happening in the world, a song that, unfortunately, has not dated since the album was first released. The title track, underscored with lovely cello playing by Cambridge’s own Valerie Thompson, uses a car engine as a metaphor for how we need to take regular care of ourselves. Davis has more than a little chanteuse in her musical toolkit, which comes out in the sweet and lightly swinging standard “When Sunny Gets Blue.” Meanwhile, “Moving Day” is an eyes-wide-open song about divorce and who gets to keep what.

The three closing songs, though it may not have been intended as such, seem to form a suite about new beginnings. “New Face to Love,” “Wash Away” (another gospel-ish number punctuated by Stovall Brown’s spine-tingling slide work), and “The Simple Life” inspire the listener to shake off the blues and look to the future (in spite of social media and other intrusive technologies that make one pine for the old days).

You can purchase Keep a Clean Engine at Davis’s Bandcamp site.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for nearly 40 years. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His latest book, Villainy Ever After (2022), is a collection of classic fairy tales told from the point of view of the villains. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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