Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Southeast Engine's Appalachian folk will grow into your consciousness

March 1, 2011

History has produced two of the most enigmatic and intriguing albums I’ve heard in a while. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor used the Civil War as a catalyst for current cultural analysis, while Southeast Engine‘s Canary calls up the Great Depression to give a grounding to its Appalachian folk tunes.

The most immediate track here is “1933 (The Great Depression),” which shares more than just a historical bent with the art-damaged punk band from New Jersey. The jangling saloon piano that underpins Titus rings true in “1933,” giving an fire and urgency that is matched by the roaring guitar, which has a similar fuzzed-out tone to their punk brothers. The difference lies in the drums (not punk), the organ, and the vocals. The vocals are sung in a weary tone ratcheting up to indignation, where the opposite is true of Titus Andronicus.

In short, you can slap “1933 (The Great Depression)” right after “A More Perfect Union” as a great segue into a Josh Ritter tune, and people are gonna think you’re a genius.

But let me dispel any notions that this is the folk Titus Andronicus (although, for real, I’d take that moniker). This is a straight-up Appalachian folk band in many places, which is powerful. It’s bands like these that make me sad when the term folk is bandied about so liberally these days (even by me, I must admit).

The forlorn acoustic guitar beauty of “Mountain Child” sounds like it was ripped out of a forest on the side of some Adirondack peak. The vocal melody is haunting and genuine (at least, as genuine as modern folk gets, but that’s a whole other discussion). The flourishes (violin, sparing piano, background ooo’s) make the tune even more pristine.

The subtlety-eschewing “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains” features a banjo prominently in its rustic mix, and the addition makes the tune. “Red Lake Shore” has a more urgent feel, but the modern songwriting idea still allows the song to fall firmly within the Appalachian folk tunes surrounding it.

Canary is the sort of album that you have to explore. You can’t just hear it once and know it. The mind-blowing “1933 (The Great Depression)” will reveal immediate payoff, but the rest of the album has to be put on and broken in like a good coat or a pair of work boots. This is an album that, much like its Appalachian forebears, is about being rather than getting there. The tunes have to sit with you and sink in for best appreciation. Imagine you had only dozens of songs at your disposal instead of millions; wouldn’t you get to know those tunes well? Yes. Do the same for Canary. It will reward you.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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