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. Canary goes for a similar relevance here on “1933 (Great Depression),” where Adam Remnant asks, “So all our loss and our dispossession/ Leaves us here begging the question/ What’s so goddamn great about the Great Depression?” Their last album felt more ambitious and focused, with its three-part introduction and general biblical arc. Canary is less unified, but there are great songs here.
The whole album is loosely structured around the toil of poverty and dispossession in a small Ohio mining town, Canaanville, during the Great Depression. Hopes are glimpsed from the top of a ferris wheel, and the residents cling to their local identity and even the mountains themselves as a source of strength. In “Adeline,” the “trees have all been cut down for the industries,” but despite the barren landscape, something of its spirit remains in the song’s subject, the narrator’s twin sister. The men in town “find you in their dreams pressing wine from black cherries/ And they’ll never know what that means but they know they need you.”
Critics approach bands like Southeast Engine with a bit of narcissistic suspicion, seemingly wary of anything identifiably Appalachian, which is taken as an indication that no matter the vision and substance of the music at hand, the best the band can do is update a road-worn formula. Their logic is the logic of originality: that the value of a work lies in doing what hasn’t been done before. Thus, Southeast Engine gets inappropriately compared to Wilco, their barnstorming folk jams get recast as nostalgia and Levon Helm-worship, and Adam Remnant’s inventive writing presumably gets lumped in with Joel Osteen. A review on AllMusic even compared the band’s third album unfavorably to Radiohead, a band whose originality is hopelessly overrated.
That logic is ultimately self-defeating when looking at any oral tradition, from black preaching to Appalachian folk, because the trajectory of a musician begins with establishing fluency in that tradition, and culminates in them finding a “voice” or unique style. So ‘originality’ is a part of it, but it’s not the whole picture. By Canary, Southeast Engine’s fourth album, it’s safe to say they’ve found that voice. Songs like the quiet “Mountain Child” showcase Remnant improving as a songwriter. Elsewhere, on “Red Lake Shore,” the band figures more prominently, and the variety of autoharp flourishes and wheezy organ sounds outside the expected instrumentation suggests a band deploying their vernacular thoughtfully, rather than rehashing folk conventions by rote.
They close the album with a by-the-book take on the old fiddle tune “Sourwood Mountain.” Whereas at the end of earlier albums conceptual threads needed tying, here the brief dénouement says the band has come full circle, and claiming their tradition explicitly only makes Southeast Engine’s (I’m nervous to use this word) political messages more powerful.
When a moralizing newscaster or politician comes on TV and frames the national debt in terms of past generations mortgaging the future, I never know quite how to feel. The implication is psychologically profound, suggesting there’s no future to be had, that our own parents — our own traditions — are to blame, however indirectly. But there’s one verse on “New Growth” I’ll remember: “Salvage what won’t fall apart/ Make the most of stove and hearth/ The mistakes of yesterday/ Are being played out today/ And I shudder at the fire/ And at thought of all that has transpired/ But as long as we don’t tire/ All debts will be repaid.” I certainly hope so.