Since 2007’s Wheel Within a Wheel album introduced Southeast Engine to the world, the band has set itself to the task of refining their blend of alternative rock and old-time Appalachia. There’s an indie sensibility, but imagine you’re hearing it after it’s drifted past choir practice in a small country church. The band’s music ranges from rollicking to wobbly, with lead singer Adam Remnant singing in a manner that often sounds haunted to its core. Sometimes it can be quite inviting; sometimes it can seem like it’s daring you to follow along.
With Canary, Southeast Engine up the ante by creating a concept album about the struggles of a family in southeast Ohio during the Great Depression. Right away, it’s not hard to see parallels to the tales coming out of the economy’s current struggles. American talking head shows are full of talk about sacrifice, which seems to be nothing more than code for “Hang on to your hats, poor and middle class America. You’re about to get screwed again.” If the health of the working class was ever a gauge for anything, that role seems to have been lost when the powers that be decided “The canaries in this coal mine are cheap, and there’s a hell of a lot of ’em.”
Something as huge as the Great Depression might seem out of a young band’s league, but Southeast Engine smartly focus their eye on the fortunes of a single family in the wake of timber and coal reserves running out. It’s bleak, yes, but it’s not without hope. As early as the album’s opener, “Curse of Canaanville,” Remnant sings:
Men overtook these branches to feed their iron tongues
They carved their initials into the trunks
And they carted them off leaving nothing but sawdust
Now mother father won’t stop drinking he’s calling on his kin
He’s naming names spitting blood and cursing Canaan
Yeah even the saved are forsaken
Heavy stuff. Immediately after, however, he sings, “So I’m going back to the garden where the trees are in full bloom / I’m shaking off the ashes of brimstone and doom / I’m gonna pick a thousand apples in a single afternoon”. So there’s light that any person of faith expects to find in the darkness. But then Remnant turns around yet again to observe, “So it seems the world can be a nightmare with heaven intertwined / Men lower the canary down into the mine / But they’re raising up a raven seven times the size”. The narrator’s optimism is tempered by the fact that mankind will continue to be its own worst enemy, and that the struggle will never end — at least not in this life.
So it goes throughout Canary. “Cold Front Blues” is the voice of a man getting the shakes just thinking about trying to make ends meet, while the rousing “1933 (Great Depression)” forgoes even the simple pleasures of affection in the face of an unrelenting tide of misery. Then “At Least We Have Each Other” comes along to muse, “Let’s go sledding on the Pine Street hill / It’s too damn cold to be sitting still / And oh just to feel the thrill of knowing you’re alive”. “Mountain Child” defiantly refuses to lose the family farm by migrating to the factory jobs of the city, and “New Growth” issues a challenge to “Let us usher out the waning moon and the old stars that preside / Over this gathering, let the sheriff be condemned / Yeah let us get rid of the rot and start the whole thing up again”.
Canary is an album of desolation, struggle, hope, and escape that still isn’t free of struggle. Gone are some of the band’s poppier, more accessible tendencies in favor of a rough, hand-hewn feel that never lets you get quite comfortable. That might sound like a turnoff to some, but it’s totally in keeping with the album’s themes. And of all Southeast Engine’s albums, Canary might be the best fit yet for the heavy Biblical influence in the band’s lyrics. Canary sounds like an album where Southeast Engine brought everything together, never lost control, and never backed off of a hard vision.