Ohio band writes a fanfare for the common man It may not seem like it at first, but Southeast Engine’s Canary is actually a concept album — and an ambitious one at that. Through 11 songs, the band follows a family in rural Ohio as they confront the devastations of the Great Depression, and songwriter Adam Remnant depicts their plight through dusty Americana rock and evocative lyrics full of natural imagery. For many reasons, this sort of thematic undertaking can be especially difficult to do without merely playing dress-up or singing to your framed history degree on the wall.
Since 2007’s Wheel Within a Wheel album introduced Southeast Engine to the world, the band has set itself to the task of refining their blend of alternative rock and old-time Appalachia. There’s an indie sensibility, but imagine you’re hearing it after it’s drifted past choir practice in a small country church. The band’s music ranges from rollicking to wobbly, with lead singer Adam Remnant singing in a manner that often sounds haunted to its core.
There's something rather audacious about the notion of a rock band creating a concept album whose themes and narrative foundation are anchored in a time before rock & roll came along, but if Southeast Engine were conscious of the contradictions involved on their fifth album, Canary, it would seem they didn't fret much about them. And with good reason: while Southeast Engine's music is clearly rooted in rock & roll, the strength of Adam Remnant's songwriting and the Appalachian accents of this music are well suited to Canary's tales of one family struggling through the depths of the depression in Ohio during the 1930s. Canary is music whose warmth and compassion shine through even when the songs speak of bad times and crushing disappointment, and the loose but emphatic report of the performances not only suits the melodies, but also reinforces the tone of the informal narrative.
Southeast Engine hail from Athens, Ohio, a former coal-mining town that, in addition to resting in the foothills of the Appalachians, has popped up on a few "Most Haunted Cities in America" lists. That might scan as a bogus bullet point, but given the subject matter of his outfit's fifth full-length, frontman and chief songwriter Adam Remnant seems to have a very strong attachment to the history around him. Canary is a 1930s museum piece and concept album centered around one Appalachian family trying to shoulder its way through the Great Depression.
To my mind, it seems like Southeast Engine have always striven for timeliness rather than timelessness. “Ain’t that the way things go/ Down to an all-time low/ We lost all our discoveries/ Now we’re waiting on recoveries,” goes “Cold Front Blues,” the second track off Canary, invoking hopelessness with a certain hardscrabble moral authority, a voice that resonates in America’s current post-bailout, high-unemployment miasma. “Black Oil,” off of their excellent last album, From The Forest To the Sea, was another of those gestures, and “Law Abiding Citizen” told the story of a geography student who charted maps for undersea oil exploration.
Southeast Engine have crafted a prescient reading of a small Appalachian family during the Great Depression on Canary. The album presents itself as scenes and character studies, rather than a narrative. Though based mainly in a folk mode, Southeast Engine explore many styles throughout the album, from the rock stylings of “1933 (Great Depression)”, to the strumming of opener “The Curse of Canannville”.