Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Southeast Engine is Back

How do I write about Southeast Engine without being hugely biased? This band has embodied the feeling and the idea of living in Appalachia for the past 5 years for me – ever since I moved down to Athens, Ohio for college. They were the first concert I saw, and continued as one of my favorite bands through my entire Appalachian experience. They defined Athens. They defined the feeling of being home there. Their shows were common, and albums were released reliably. I remember the anticipation for a new album. Sitting in Cincinnati with my boyfriend at the time, he played me “Psychoanalysis.” We sat there with out mouths opened, positively high on the excitement we had for anything new and Southeast Engine.

I had a radio show. I interviewed local musicians. About three weeks into my show, I decided I needed to have Southeast Engine on the show. I hung up posters on every street corner in town, announcing that “Athens favorite rock band” would be on the radio. I was so star struck when I met them, I almost laugh at my own naiveté. Ok, I do laugh. It will silly. I was ridiculous. In the next four years, I saw them over and over again, realized they were real human beings, and they didn’t take themselves too seriously. I became friends with Adam Torres, my favorite band member… who is no longer with them. I found out he convinced them to let him in the band because they needed a keyboard player. He didn’t play keyboard. Once he was in, he played guitar. It makes me smirk.

My friends and I would go see Southeast Engine at the old Front Room, in the old Baker Center. That was before the school remade a new Front Room into a sterile box of coffee addiction. The old room was dark and dingy and the crowd sang along to half the show. It felt raw and alive, and it was a completely new experience. If you listen to Southeast Engine’s old material, it has a much more punk feel to it. It’s not polished, and the storytelling is not quite there yet. They were young. It is still some of my favorite.

Since then, the band has evolved. Its albums tell stories, and a theme unites them. You hear a lot more of the folk influence of Appalachia in them. And no album feels more Appalachian than Canary.

Here's my try at reviewing it........

This Athens, Ohio-based band takes us back in time for their latest release, recalling both the story and musical likeness of the Great Depression era. They stay true to what they know, though, steeping the songs in the kind of Appalachian folk that screams out with the occasional electric guitar, but mostly glimmers with organ and acoustic pickings.

Canary is a concept album that takes us along for a ride with a family stuck in a mining town with the worst kind of economic tragedy. Trombone and trumpet float atop “Cold Front Blues,” about snow’s devastating effects on a town dependent on natural resources, and ragged guitar solos rip through “1933 (Great Depression),” a track that captures a sense of hope despite hard times. Lines like “When church lets out her face is the one I see/ her dark blue eyes of mystery/are making me devout” build the multidimensional characters in Southeast Engine’s narrative. These are the sort of love songs that people stopped writing in the age of bling and Bieber.

We learn that the main character’s mother has died in “Red Lake Shore,” which starts with a faraway vocal echo. It builds with Leo Deluca’s shuffling drumbeat, and the spot-on vocal harmonies of frontman Adam Remnant, and his brother and bandmate Jesse. Billy Matheny cuts into “At Least We Have Each Other” with a hotter-than-the-Devil flame of organ, adding an old-timey feel to the chiming piano that accompanies it.

Through the album, it’s easy to develop a relationship with the family whose life Southeast Engine details. The theme rings out as especially meaningful today, with Appalachia still dealing with environmental disasters like mountaintop removal mining that wreak havoc on its communities. This is an album that finally seems to capture the feeling that Southeast Engine has been working toward since they formed in 1999. They’re writing about what they know, and the music resultantly falls right into place.

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