Southeast Engine – Canary

January 01, 1970




Canary, the third album by Southeast Engine, from all impressions,
seems likely be their break-out album, as it has garnered considerable high
praise in the alt-music press over the last month. To fully appreciate their
music, and the thematic nature of Canary,
it helps to know about the members’ upbringing in the Appalachian hills of Athens in S.E. Ohio. It’s
a grounding experience, with roots that branch out into Pentecostal one room
churches, rugged rural routes winding through hollows and over hilltops, and a
ghostly presence that that permeates the countryside. Athens County has the
reputation of being one of the most haunted areas in the country, from the old
cemeteries, to the old mental asylum, creepy Mt. Nebo and even into a couple of
the dorms at Ohio University. The town is 40 miles from where the mysterious
Moth Man spooked the Ohio River town of Point
Pleasant in the sixties. Athens
was plotted out around 1800 for the expansion into the Northwest Territories and the university
founded 4 years later. I once came upon a tombstone at an old graveyard there,
where the deceased was born in 1798 and passed in 1902, and I marveled at how
he had lived in three different centuries. Coalmines sprung up in the
surrounding villages, locals eking out meager livings in the dark pits. The
university and a long-gone printing company had always been the major source of
income for the area, which remains impoverished, but providing a cozy niche of
culture to the region. When the Great Depression hit, coincidentally started by
another big real estate bubble, families struggled to put food on the table,
thus the theme of Canary.


Now, with enough back-story to
choke a horse, I can continue with the band. Their music is very much
influenced by the rich history they marinated in, coloring it with a “lived it”
authenticity. It’s music that’s partly country comfort, Americana backwoods
gospel righteousness, all falling into step with The Band, Okkerville River and
the ragged old glory rock of Neil Young. 
Singer songwriter Adam Remnant has a talent for folding bluegrass and
gospel influences into indie-rock, as well as telling compelling stories with
his writing, while the band fleshes out the songs by cooperatively polishing
and arranging them. The tunes are peppered here and there with horns or touches
of the old-timey; fiddles, banjos, organ, piano and mouth organ, suitably
flavoring acoustic and electric guitars with rustic charm. “1933 (Great
Depression),” is one the more rocking songs of the bunch, complete with a
shout-out gospel chorus, standup piano pounding, all played with great passion,
and ending in an explosive guitar solo. “I don’t know what’s so goddamned great
about the Great Depression,” Remnant proclaims. The plaintive tale of “Adeline
of the Appalachian Mountains,” speaks to the
desperate times, families clinging to hope through FDR’s Fireside Chats on the
radio.  There’s something about “Red Lake
Shore” that reminds me of label-mates The Mendoza Line, musically, as soaring piano
and guitar interlace gracefully throughout. I suspect the subject is referring
to mine acids poisoning water holes, and the story narrator wishing they could
flee forever.


“Summer and Her Ferris Wheel” is
a jumping, jiggy-reel, overlaid in part with juicy harmonica and Farfisa organ,
adding touches of garage-rock to a traditional folk-like melody.


“Ruthie” is another outstanding
Americana-flavored number with a lovely, winsome melody that embeds itself in
your brain. It’s a beautiful blending of banjo, fiddle and piano, as hope seems
to be right around the corner. The album ends in a pure bluegrass breakdown, “Sourwood Mountain,” which I wouldn’t be surprised
to hear pop up in an episode of Justified next season. Eschew being too
distracted by the fact that it’s a ‘theme’ album or that it has bluegrass and
gospel leanings. The alchemy really works, an indie-rock/down-home music and
instruments fusion. That’s what makes Southeast Engine such an engaging band,
crafting inspired music such as this, and a lyrical insight as to sweep you up
and along with their stories.


        DOWNLOAD: “1933
(Great Depression)”  “Ruthie,” “Summer
and Her Ferris Wheel.” BARRY ST.


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