There's something rather audacious about the notion of a rock band creating a concept album whose themes and narrative foundation are anchored in a time before rock & roll came along, but if Southeast Engine were conscious of the contradictions involved on their fifth album, Canary, it would seem they didn't fret much about them. And with good reason: while Southeast Engine's music is clearly rooted in rock & roll, the strength of Adam Remnant's songwriting and the Appalachian accents of this music are well suited to this album's tales of one family struggling through the depths of the depression in Ohio during the 1930s.
Canary is music whose warmth and compassion shine through even when the songs speak of bad times and crushing disappointment, and the loose but emphatic report of the performances not only suits the melodies, but also reinforces the tone of the informal narrative. This music has just enough breath in it to reflect the shaky spirit of folks trying to make their way through desperate poverty, and while Remnant's vocal style has a decided wobble to it (recalling a less affected Will Oldham), he sounds as sincerely Appalachian as you could wish, and the bitterness that shows though on "1933 (Great Depression)," the desperate hope of "New Growth," and the bittersweet longing of "Ruthie" all sound honest and perfectly befit his characters.
Plenty of musicians aiming to evoke the sounds of rural America in the '30s would strive to replicate the sound of a string band on an old 78, which may be why Canary is so powerful: rather than create a sound rooted in the past, Southeast Engine have instead written songs that feel emotionally honest and performed them with a gentle force that gracefully cuts to the heart of the matter without fretting about musical vintage. The result is something affecting and extraordinary. Canary is a true find from a band that's quietly created one of the most powerful albums of the year.
1. Curse of Canannville
2. Cold Front Blues
3. 1933 (The Great Depression)
4. At Least We Have Each Other
5. Adeline of the Appalachain Mountains
6. Red Lake Shore
7. Mountain Child
8. New Growth
9. Summer and Her Ferris Wheel
11. Sourwood Mountain
CD: Jewel case with full lyric booklet
Cassette: Canary yellow tape with digital download