The United States, as a nation with rich culture, is defined in part by what has come to be associated with the frontier. The most prominent example is that of the cowboy, a somewhat marginal character in its own time, but nonetheless it has become the international mascot of the nation. Along with the cowboy come open skies and ranges, a cosmopolitan sort of God who watches over all and whose parables apply to everyone in their struggles, and the folk tunes that play as perpetual soundtrack to these American motifs. Southeast Engine, in their newest album, From the Forest to the Sea, plays adeptly this soundtrack, using many these patently American motifs to explore life as it is lived. They use these grandiose symbols and resplendent images to reflect the dull and frustrating light of life that shines only dimly underneath the troubles and uncertainties of fermenting frustration.
The most obvious of these American motifs is the music itself. It is a pertinent example of American folk in that it seems imminently familiar to sounds I’ve heard ambling into my ears on many a variegated occasion throughout my insulated American life, from the slow rhythms that leave room for words of the wailer to resonate and resound in strength increasing, to the rollicking tempo that drive some songs to the edge of joy, riding that line with an abandon undoubtedly skillful. Melodically, the music soars with the vocals, constantly under the signer’s wing, and as though the music were the wind, it lifts the singer higher than might otherwise be considered possible.
This perpetual partnership of the voice and the music is what really noteworthy in this album. As noted before, the song can send the words higher and higher, both in pitch and power, but it sometimes seems that the music is really all that holds vocalist from falling through the floorboards. To explain, there are moments when the vocals suddenly to drop, like at the end of the track “Law-Abiding Citizen.” Towards the close of the song, the pitch of the singer stalls high in the air, hanging briefly for a tenuous moment at a height unsupported by the full force of the music, until the aerodynamics of melody and composition demand the singer to fall to the earth and ground the song in some sense of resolution. The vocals fall sharply, but a single piano key catches the pitch before falling flat into tonic. Voice hangs uneasy here at the end of the song, an uncertain grip of an unresolved melody pinching the mood with a tension that carries straight through to the next track, “Two of Every Kind.”
And here, the vocalist takes advantage of the tension. A certain sense of showmanship is garnered in the wavering hush, and the vocalist sets the scene as if telling the story before a campfire. Once the introduction are settled, he jumps from the quiet and into the music that carries his story in the song “Two of Every Kind.” It is these kind vocal effects that are really what is rousing about the album, and they can be found all over, from the forest to the sea. In the listener, they stir a kind of irrepressible need to listen and participate, a rhetoric of music: for example, there’s the vocalist’s occasional but sudden jumps in energy in the slow comforting song “Quest for Noah’s Ark,” and then there’s the almost Gospel cadence found in the song “Sea of Galilee” that reinvigorates some of most inspirational yet tired and trite and overexploited images of the Bible, images that once moved armies and nations to tears and death. These are what I would call vocal effects, completely natural techniques used to elevate the words above their simple meaning. From the Forest to the Sea brings new life to American traditions. It is moving life, affecting life, one that rouses the listener in a way long forgotten.