Southeast Engine distills turbulence of Great Depression into engaging new LP

Just about any topic is fair game for a concept album: a deaf, dumb, blind pinball wizard; gullible Americans in the age of media saturation; a wall symbolizing alienation — the list goes on. Southeast Engine takes a historical approach on its new concept record, “Canary” (Misra), an 11-song cycle following one Appalachian family through the Great Depression.

It’s a thoughtful, and largely successful, attempt to distill one of the more turbulent periods in American history into a modern take on mountain-folk tunes. Despite the occasional anachronism  — the song “1933 (Great Depression)” gets ahead of itself, in that the term “Great Depression” didn’t come into widespread use until 1934 — the Athens, Ohio, band creates relatable characters and manages to capture the mix of desperation and in-it-togetherness that can accompany unsettled times. (As opposed to the tear-each-other-apartness accompanying our currently period of economic and social unease.)

The songs draw from the Appalachian musical tradition: they’re rootsy numbers built around fingerpicked acoustic guitar, piano, the occasional mix of fiddle and mandolin, and charmingly ramshackle vocal harmonies. Singer Adam Remnant sounds weary on standout “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains,” resigned to a hardscrabble life in the land his protagonist knows best on the slow, sad “Mountain Child,” and glad of a momentary respite on the up-tempo “Summer and Her Ferris Wheel.”

It’s rare to find a historically-based album that’s also timely, but some of the things Remnant and company mention on “Canary” — debt collectors, foreclosure, looming poverty — have a certain modern resonance, too. Even if Southeast Engine didn’t mean “Canary” as that kind of an allegory, these songs offer a little comfort in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.

— Text by Eric R. Danton, photo by Noah Rabinowitz

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