There are elements of Americana rock outfit Southeast Engine that are telling before you hear a single note or word.
The group was formed in Athens, Ohio, which is steeped in Appalachian folk music. The band's name seems to hark back to a bygone era of railways.
Keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Bill Matheny says there are certain things listeners shouldn't expect: "There aren't very many songs about cars or partying."
The band, conceived by chief songwriter/vocalist Adam Remnant and drummer Leo DeLuca in 1999, and its music combine the Americana and folk-rock aesthetic of The Band and Wilco with the indie rock of Guided by Voices.
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Lyrically, Remnant tackles bigger themes than cars and partying.
Over multiple self-released albums recorded on their college stomping grounds, the signing to the indie label Misra Records and several lineup changes, Remnant has made sure his melodic and narrative vision come together for some tuneful tracks and weighty yarns.
2007's A Wheel Within a Wheel is a reference to the biblical book of Ezekiel that finds the album's narrator grappling with a quest for answers and redemption. From the Forest to the Sea in 2009 is a lyrical odyssey of seeking oil in the ocean, with a protagonist fighting with spiritual doubt and less-than-honorable urges.
Matheny, who joined the band in 2008, said Remnant's album approach is always built around a concept but with songs that can break away on their own.
"The way Adam writes things is he will literally write a complete album, demo the material for us and we'll get an album of 10 or 12 songs," Matheny said. "Although they stand on their own, they do hold on to a larger whole."
Each subsequent release has been accompanied with increasing critical acclaim and popularity. The band's latest album, Canary, ups its game both musically and in the scope of its storytelling.
Canary centers on an Appalachian family trying to survive the Great Depression. But when Remnant, DeLuca, Matheny and Remnant's bassist brother, Jeremy, recorded the album, they weren't doing it as a preservation project.
"You could easily write a 10- or 12-song album about a family going through the Great Depression and it could easily sound like a musical version of The Waltons," Matheny said. "It wasn't really a deliberate thing to make it sound as folksy as we could. It just happened that way."
Sure, they recruited proficient local fiddle players, Matheny plays banjo to add backwoods touches to Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains, and Remnant's weary, crackled tenor reflects his characters' mood in the dour rumination Mountain Child. But there's almost jubilance in the psych-rock romp 1933 (Great Depression) or the speedy bluegrass bounce of Summer and Her Ferris Wheel.
Matheny said Remnant's attempt to capture the emotions of people living in economic despair should draw listeners.
"When you take out the specifics, the greater meanings of the songs are definitely applicable today," Matheny said. "When you have people that are struggling, that happens all the time. That can feel the same in 1933 or 2003 or 2011."