A history lesson from Southeast Engine
“What’s so goddamn great about the Great Depression?”
Well, nothing actually. But the tumultuous period of our country’s history allowed Southeast Engine, a quartet hailing from “down in the Hocking Valley,” – Athens, Ohio – to create an honest concept album that is beyond compare.
I was asked to give the band’s latest effort, “Canary,” a listen in advance of their upcoming appearance at The Adelphia Music Hall in Marietta, Ohio.
I had no idea what to expect and honestly wasn’t expecting a whole lot. Oh yay, another indie-folk-rock Americana band riding the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Civil Wars wave of depressing, alt-bluegrass.
But – yeah, I said “but” – “Canary” is actually quite listenable, a charming history lesson. Roosevelt was indeed president during the Great Depression, as stated in one of the songs, and lives were turned upside down after a decade of hedonism, an unstable stock market and men getting ready to defend their country yet again. Hmm, wait a minute, that sounds awfully familiar.
What is interesting about Southeast Engine’s take on The Great Depression is that the group chose to focus on southeast Ohio and Appalachia, areas and people that were extremely hard hit and have really never fully recovered from that time.
They’ve captured the reason why Appalachian people are so protective of their land, so eager to reject stereotypes and so fiercely loyal to their own: the mountains, the music and the struggles all create their “identity.” If you doubt me, just listen to the chilling “Mountain Child.”
Musically, the sound is very tight. Yes, there are hints of the mainstream Americana vibe that is so popular right now. But there is a depth and a sorrow, especially in singer Adam Remnant’s voice, and the haunting harmonies. And while you could definitely listen to this album while rocking on the front porch drinking lemonade or whatever else, the sound is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It rocks when it needs to rock and is mellow when the mood requires it to be. It’s not exactly stripped down, although that might be more appropriate at times.
For example, “1933 (The Great Depression) ” is a rocking, upbeat tune with guitar licks more suited to the 1950s, a heavy organ and piano that make you want to raise your hands to the sky and shout, “take me to church – halleluia.”
The quintessential bluegrass sound of wailing fiddles and banjo picking is used sporadically and comes along full force at the end in the instrumental, “Sourwood Mountain.”
The one and only complaint I have of the album – and it is trivial and probably more my far-reaching imagination than anything- is the song, “At Least We Have Each Other,” which sounds like the Steve Miller Band, Nirvana and a moog synthesizer had a threesome and this was the love child.
Overall the album is pretty warm, given the subject matter. And with a wealth of history at their feet, I look forward to Southeast Engine’s next offering to sweep me away to yet another place and time.