Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Southeast Engine - Canary

The presence of an album name in this week's subject title should be an indication of another repeat profile, in this case the third such returning group in the form of Southeast Engine's Canary, out on March 29 on Mistra Records. Our previous recurring profiles were of the Gaslight Anthem (here and here) and the Rural Alberta Advantage (here and here). For full background details on this Athens, Ohio-based quartet, view the original Southeast Engine review here.

To suggest surprise that Canary represents a concept album would be like feigning astonishment that Ben Folds has produced another quirky piano-pop record; it's simply what they do. As a matter of fact, the 11-track effort is actually less conceptual than the group's previous outing, 2009's From the Forest to the Sea – the compelling – if uneven – tale of a morally wayward cartographer (seriously, that's what it was about; check my previously referenced review). That work featured a more cohesive storyline, characters and direction then this most recent product. Nonetheless, Canary includes many of the trademark aspects of a concept record: a definitive period and setting (early Depression-era Appalachia – 1933, to be precise), a clearly identified and recurring stable of characters and a unifying sonic mission that unites the component tracks into a larger whole. But for those looking for an alt-country Dark Side of the Moon or a mountain music Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you'll be left unfulfilled.

When an album declares its arrival with the line, "my mother’s old lantern tolls a light...," you know the sort direction you're heading: an earnest, plainspoken affair set some forlorn, but recent past. On "Curse of Caananville," frontman Adam Remnant shuffles into the proceedings like some disparaging troubadour who disconcertingly finds himself set amongst the despair of a hardscrabble community unprepared for the most trying battle with modernity. He takes his time to establish his pious ethos here, before turning on a dime to get busy with the storytelling in the track's elongated second verse. We hear about sawdust, brimstone and gloom and an oversized raven, as the situation grows increasingly perilous. Less startling is the transition back to a refrain of the intro, but the scene has already been set for conditions that are already bad and are likely to grow worse. Remnant bears his Appalachian Protestantism in the same manner that Craig Finn is informed by his Twin Cities Catholicism, an enduring and constantly uneasy parry between the influences of upbringing and the failings of parochialism in the face of strife.

The follow-up, "Cold Front Blues," is no less ominous. In what could have easily have doubled as an outtake from The Band's Music from Big Pink, a jaunting and menacing background by the four-piece outfit (which also includes Remnant's younger brother Jesse on bass, founding drummer Leo DeLuca and keyboardist Michael Lehman) supports Remnant as he accounts a scene where little is going right and the true reckoning is yet to come, as he describes:

"before it all shuts down: the mine, the mill, the town;
the devil left his footprints here and said he’d be back by next year..."

Nothing is going right, and the hovering organ part supplied by Michael Lehman only adds to the sense of foreboding.

By the time "1933 (Great Depression)" rolls around, things are in full devolution – and to make matters worse, it's winter. The electric guitar and menacing organ combo only add to the sense of urgency and catastrophe, as debt collectors stalk the protagonist and the wheel of fate is nearing its final revolution. F.D.R appears for the first time as a time post – to reappear in a later track – as Remnant appears to channel The Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon in the line, "my boxcar eyes and your railroad face." And yet, in spite of the tumult steadily gripping the scene, Remnant locates a verse to direct us to the friend of the protagonist's sister, the neighboring Ruthie. Remnant has a recurring habit of casting all his male characters as misguided at best and depraved at worst, while channeling his hope and optimism through their female counterparts, as was true throughout From the Forest to the Sea, as well as the group's earlier works. The same holds true here, where not only Ruthie, but a handful of other luminating ladies – "Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains," Aunt Mae and the mythical "Summer and Her Ferris Wheel" – offer salvation and promise to the men who have not the strength or fortitude escape the strife of their time.

After the love-in-our-time ballad of "At Least We Have Each Other," the aforementioned "Adeline..." points most directly to alt-country vanguards of Wilco and their collaboration with British punk-folkster Billy Bragg on lost Woody Guthrie lyrics that formed the Mermaid Avenue collections. The mix of astronomy and historical context is perhaps the record's most poignant realization of the intent its mission, and is rendered with proper aplomb. The only gripe with Remnant's delivery – no more true here than on past recordings – might be that while he certainly captures the vinegary authenticity of the Appalachian voice, at the low end of his register, his pitch nearly vanishes and the lyrics seep through the cracks at the most inopportune moments. On an effort where the words are so essential, there's no room for a patchwork cover and, at times, good intentions can't make up for lack of execution.

Nonetheless, the first single of "Red Lake Shore" is crafty and well-rounded, even if the haunting 40 seconds of spoken intro are nearly lost in the hazy background. The piece fits as a time and place of reckoning, as if to resolve the anguish that pervades the first half of the collection. The outcome of the encounter that occurs here is uncertain, but the tone is bit more driving than anything that preceded it – besides the battle of "1939 (Great Depression)" – and sets the stage for the album's conclusion.

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Unfortunately, its immediate successors – "Mountain Child" and "New Growth" are respectively sleepy and uninviting, and are certainly the record's low points. But "Summer and Her Ferris Wheel" offers a dramatic counterpoint, with its nearly reckless optimism. Southeast Engine nearly always is at its best when its dynamic and moving – like "1939 (Great Depression)" or "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" of 2007's A Wheel Within a Wheel – and showcase the band's usually untapped energy. And while "Ruthie" is, conversely, a deliberate lover's ode, it's also conspicuously beautiful in contrast to the desperation of the record's narrative. The combination of these tracks suggests something less tragic might be possible for those who've endured so much. That notion is only bolstered by the instrumental hoedown of "Sourwood Mountain," which brings the collection to a close, where the front-porch assembly of fiddles, banjos and jaw harps speak to days ahead.

Come for: "Red Lake Shore"
Stay for: "1933 (Great Depression)"
You'll be surprised by: "Ruthie"

1 comment:

  1. Wow, these guys totally look/sound like Firewood Revival! And I sooooo miss Firewood Revival! Sometimes I think I imagined them, but their old site is still around: http://firewoodrevival.com/