Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Southeast Engine

Somewhere in the same wintry hinterlands occupied by Okkervil River and Wilco is Athens, Ohio's Southeast Engine. Peddling songs about famous filmmakers and malcontents, the four-piece's latest effort is the semi-concept album, From the Forest to the Sea.

Weaving a tale of a wayward cartographer (now, isn't that a concept Colin Meloy or the Johns Flansburgh and Linnel would love?), the 12-track album very broadly mirrors the themes delivered by Mr. Meloy himself in The Decemberists' Hazards of Love, which was released around the same time. In Southeast Engine's version, the unnamed protagonist is lured away from his lucrative mapmaking career and established family life for a woodlands temptress, named Lady Midnight, after the Leonard Cohen song of the same title. He traverses – as the collection's title suggests – his way from the forest to the sea, all the while braving the wrath of the divine for his transgressions.

While the entire record should be considered as a cohesive unit due to its conceptual nature, there are several tracks that stand on their own nonetheless. "Black Gold" – owing its title to the crude fossil fuel the central character charts in his profession – settles into a thumping Pettyian "Running Down a Dream" vibe, replete with the perfunctory "who hoos." It's catchy enough for subject madder so muddy and cumbersome and drummer Leo DeLuca drives the tune.

Meanwhile, both "Easier Said Than Done" and "Malcontent" are barnstormers, with a rockabilly grove to the former and a rusty duststorm sensibility in the latter. Lead singer and songwriter Adam Remnant engages closely with the style of Wilco's Jeff Tweedy in these tracks, both in the actual sound of his singing and his lyricism. Moreover, like Tweedy, Remnant isn't gifted with the world's strongest pipes, which becomes particularly apparent on the slower trio of "The Forest" songs, where notes in his lower register make his annunciation nearly indecipherable on a couple occasions. Still, what he lacks in vocal prowess he largely recoups in authenticity, as he is a perfectly credible narrator to convey his stories' hardscrabble tone.

And while Remnant is a capable frontman, the true star of the group is pianist Michael Lachman. The late-appearing "Sea of Galilee" is a bona fide rolling gospel rock number, and Lachman's brisk riff befits the biblical subject matter. Although it's a bit slower paced, Lachman's work similarly informs "Two of Every Kind" – another tune titled through scripture reference – that would seem as appropriate in a ghost town saloon as "Sea of Galilee" would in a southland sanctuary. Any listeners impressed by Lachman's work here certainly should track down the groups previous full length recordings – 2005's Coming to Terms with Gravity and A Wheel Within a Wheel of 2007 – which feature prominent Lachman-flavored tracks "Holy Ghost" and "Ezekiel Saw The Wheel," respectively. Unfortunately, recent reports have indicated he left the group soon after the record was finished and replaced by multi-instrumentalist Billy Matheny. We can only hope Lachman's successor offers as much to the group's sound as his predecessor.

Another important note on From the Forest to the Sea is that the collection's sequencing seems to not optimize its narrative plot. For instance, "Law Abiding Citizen" – a quality work of folk rock storytelling that would sound well in Johnny Cash's twilight work with Rick Rubin – is positioned at the clean-up position although it neatly spells-out the record's plot, while the aforementioned Forest trifecta sits heavily at the album's outset. Perhaps this was indeed Ramnant's original narrative intention, but even great works can benefit from an independent editor. I'd say Ramnant should have consulted one here. Still, all things considered, Southeast Engine's work on this concept treatment is altogether solid and their larger catalogue is likewise worthy of credit, so good things from Ramnant and his comrades can be expected in the future.

Come for: "Black Gold"
Stay for: "Law Abiding Citizen"
You'll be surprised by: "Sea of Galilee"

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