Album Review

Southeast Engine "Canary"

Brian Ahnmark
In the early days of coal mining, the canary served as a primitive warning beacon. Sent into the pit before the miners, the canary's sensitivity to poisonous gases would silence and kill the songbird, cautioning the men from proceeding.

Ohio's own Southeast Engine, based in Athens, selected Canary as the title to its forthcoming fifth album. The quartet releases its Canary into a perilous present pockmarked by the vengeance of Mother Nature, economic crisis, and the aloof detachment that accompanies technological rampage – also known as “progress.”

But no toxin will silence this songbird.

No, this Canary is different. This Canary has a shield of armor woven into its feathers.

This Canary is damn near flawless.

In the insatiable quest for instant (hollow) gratification, perhaps nothing has suffered more than American popular music. There's a simple concept lost on the modern listener: The songwriter's creation exists so that you may listen to it – not hear it, mind you; listen to it. Canary is a pure distillation of the honest ingredients of the craft: Narrative, melody, performance. As a body of work, it's not so much an album as it is a folk-rock symphony.

Southeast Engine may have just salvaged the antique art form of The Album from the brink of extinction. The Album remains a virile canvas for the storyteller whose vision cannot be contained within the restraints of mere song. And Southeast Engine's principal songwriter, Adam Remnant, is a hell of a storyteller.

The narrative follows a Depression-era family trying to make ends meet in Canaanville, a boom town in southeastern Ohio. The early 1930s were a time of hard-nosed labor in those parts, centered upon mining and logging; this work forever changed the landscape of the Appalachian foothills. Thus follows the obvious question: How is this history lesson at all pertinent to the modern world?

Consider the hardships faced by the not-so-fictional Canaanville family: the decline of the job market, financial ruin, the strain of the seasons, pressure from debt collectors, death. Sound eerily familiar? It’s as though these songs emerged from a time capsule to simultaneously soundtrack the past and the present.

Or as the storyteller proclaims, “Ain’t this new world old-fashioned?” The implication is jarring, the realization astonishing: We have not progressed.

And so this Canary flies into the abyss, a warning to us all...

The recording of the album took place during the particularly bitter Ohio winter of 2010, and a gritty resolve seeps from every note. The plot unfolds in rhythm with the seasons, from winter’s deep freeze through summer’s languid fade. As the seasons thaw, so does the narrative. Love blossoms; boys become men; mothers give birth.

“Let us backfill what's been defiled,” the storyteller urges.

So perhaps Canary is more than mere warning. Above all, Canary is an affirmation of hope.

Sonically, this recording deserves better than some hackneyed tangle of words masquerading as a description – Canary is intended for the ears, not the eyes. Quite simply, Side A is perfect and Side B is oh-so-close. The performances are warm and familiar, a firm handshake comprised of acoustic guitar and fiddle, an affectionate embrace of tasteful percussion and harmonies. There are moments of sneering rage, brooding reflection, pride, resolve, self-righteousness, and moving sentiment. These emotions circulate like a current of shared blood between artist and listener.

In time, the subconscious drinks in the miniscule, fleeting instants; the pick-to-guitar-string crackle that opens “1933 (Great Depression),” foreshadowing the chainsaw guitar solo climax; the ghostly saloon piano ambling lost after “Cold Front Blues,” echoing about the abandoned streets of Canaanville; the mournful hymn from the bottom of the mine, burbling up before “Red Lake Shore”; Jesse Remnant's pristine harmonies melting the snow throughout “New Growth”; Leo DeLuca hammering out the drum fill of the year in “1933 (Great Depression)”; DeLuca and keyboardist Billy Matheny locking into a commanding groove to steer “At Least We Have Each Other”; Adam Remnant's voice on “Mountain Child,” the embodiment of the sandstone cliffs that inspired this masterwork.

Even the brief hidden track “Sourwood Mountain” is ripe with purpose. This front porch jubilee of fiddle and guitar sounds like a boozy farewell to a sweltering Ohio summer evening. But it feels like a celebration of survival, of human connection, of the bountiful harvests earned by perseverance.

You will not listen to a better record this year.

Emphasis on “listen to.”