Date: Friday, Sep 28th, 2012
Time: 6:00 pm
Location: Stuart’s Opera House
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. It’s built on traditional American musics like gospel and bluegrass and blues-based rock, but it finds its spiritual roots in protest. And while its sonics and song structures are about as fresh as its subject matter, its attention to detail and local focus make for a singular achievement. That and they find the strength to see each moment quake.
Because despite the yellowed nature of Remnant’s lyrical work (the word “kin” makes an appearance as does the Devil and the phrase “give a lick”), throaty, contemporary folk-rock signifiers abound. In fact, his rolling vocal styling bridges the gap, fittingly, between Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken and Conor Oberst. While opener “Curse of Canaanville” saunters in at a pace in line with the former’s band, it eventually erupts into a steam-powered surge not unlike one of Jeff Mangum’s breaks. Elsewhere, “Cold Front Blues” cribs some melody from Oberst’s early wailer “Something Vague”, going a bit further to take on the torque of his wild-eyed delivery. “Oh but Vera don’t get sad/ I know things these days are bad,” Remnant croons. “They may take our land, our home/ All kinds of worse-case scenarios!”
But it’s not always such a downer. Though Canary clearly suggests that yesteryear’s nightmares aren’t that different from today’s, it also speaks with a great deal of hope. The titles of “New Growth” and slightly psychedelic “At Least We Have Each Other” alone communicate that. That said, one needn’t have studied Greil Marcus and the Band or spent serious time at the Smithsonian to really chew on the images and roots at work here. All in all, this is pastiche that plays to very clear strengths. Whether it’s fingerpicking and fiddles (“Mountain Child”) or piano-fueled strummers like the gorgeous “Ruthie”, these arrangements and melodies prove Remnant’s close attention to detail provides a great deal of support. While few really stand out on their own, together they lean on one another to impressive effect. As a result, it has the feeling of an album that really holds together. Now that’s an anachronism.
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Spoken & Heard is a seasonal series of literary events hosted by Kari Gunter-Seymour, Poet Laureate of Ohio, featuring award-winning authors, poets and singer/songwriters from across the country.