“Canaanville, won’t you care for me / like I care for you? / you were once a little thriving town / but now you’re through”
There is truth about American life and there are the lies we tell ourselves. There are stories hard to explain, and stories we prefer not to dwell upon. Today workplaces remain shuttered, jobs moved abroad. In Appalachian country there is talk of ‘retraining the workforce.’ We lament remarkably little about this lost way of life. And then there is Southeast Engine, a proudly working class band that concerns itself in no way with the conventions of our current ‘indie rock scene.’
Southeast Engine’s acclaimed 2011 release Canary was a revelatory reflection on an Appalachian family making ends meet during the our first Great Depression, with ghostly resonances to the same population’s contemporary struggles. Canary was replete with songs of joy in the face of sorrow – meditations on retaining a fleeting way of life still maintaining all of the conviction and jovial camaraderie of a rich culture proud in its traditions despite the long odds posed by a rashly remade society.
On that album, Southeast Engine’s principal singer/songwriter Adam Remnant burnished his credentials as one of our great chroniclers in song. In rendering the terror of near total economic and cultural disenfranchisement, Remnant’s approach was measured and almost journalistic, eschewing polemics and melodrama in favor of an authentic storytelling that only heightened the poignancy of his themes. Remnant’s gimlet eye for these fraying fault lines of American society is abetted to great effect by the accomplished, diverse and spontaneous players behind him. As a unit, Southeast Engine possess a remarkably easy way with a wide variety of musical idioms – integrating elements of soul, bluegrass and folk music into a wholly distinct blend, reflecting the regional traditions alluded to in their songs. As evidenced by their rollicking, celebratory live performances, Southeast Engine are a truly great band whose decade plus experience playing together has endowed the individual members with an almost telepathic sense of unity.
On their new release Canaanville, Remnant continues to expand upon his panoramic exploration of tight knit communities left to wither on the vine. The four track EP is alternately tense, lilting and darkly humorous as it elucidates a teetering community of miners, farmers and rail men hurtling towards an undeserved obsolescence. “Old Oak Tree” is a rueful romance covering two generations, performed with the spirit and abandon worthy of ‘The Gilded Palace Of Sin.’ The tense, tent revival narrative ‘Great Awakening’ contextualizes spirituality amidst desperation behind a ‘Harvest’-style beat and soaring minor to major chorus. The title track marries a raucous barrelhouse feel to a fearful sentiment, suggesting an evening of escapism in the face of looming forces too malignant to fully grasp. ‘C&O Railway’ brings it all back home, telling the story of a railway worker who literally builds the tracks that robs the very town of its lifeblood, carrying away goods and citizens without supplying recompense. It is a tragic song. Complicit in the demise of his own community, the narrator seems to suggest that no one along the line knows what any of it’s worth.
Writing in 1941 about America’s underclass of sharecroppers, James Agee said: “If I could do it, there would be no writing at all. It would be fragments of cloth, bits of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron. As it is though, I will do what little I can in writing.” It is possible that Remnant and Southeast Engine, themselves not famous men, face something like the same dilemma. But in so far as doing what writing can, few have done better.
About Southeast Engine
Southeast Engine’s folk-rock aesthetic emerged from the Ohio underground in 1999. The Wrens discovered SEE in 2006 and led Misra Records to the band later that year. The esteemed A Wheel Within a Wheel was released in 2007 and followed with 2009’s From the Forest to the Sea. The latter received an 84 – Universal Acclaim – from rating aggregator Metacritic. While preserving the signature sound that garnered Forest/Sea critical acclaim, Canary marks a dramatic step forward in regards to both songwriting and arrangement. In 2010 the band toured extensively with Deerhoof and is preparing an elaborate 2011 tour schedule as well.
SEE has been playing for over a decade. In 1999, Adam Remnant (lead vocals, guitar) and Leo DeLuca (drums) formed what would later become Southeast Engine. Both attended the same schools in Dayton, OH and grew up in The Gem City during its musical heyday of the 1990s. Both the ethos and music of bands like Guided By Voices, Brainiac, The Breeders, and Swearing at Motorists made long-standing impressions upon the two young musicians.
Shortly after forming SEE, Remnant and DeLuca moved to Athens, OH, where they immersed themselves in the Appalachian old-time & folk music of the area. From there, Southeast Engine’s sound – a unique hybrid of Dayton’s underground and Athens’ longstanding folk traditions, was born. In 2007, younger brother Jesse Remnant joined on bass, bringing with him a new component to the band – familial vocal harmonies. The multi-talented Billy Matheny started playing piano, organ, banjo, and guitar in 2008. This four-piece is Southeast Engine’s current and longest standing lineup.