Mrs. Citizen got me Hallowed Ground on vinyl for Christmas. (I know this, even though we’re a few days before Christmas, because we’re bad at keeping secrets. I’ve managed to keep her gifts under wraps, but this is the first year in memory that I didn’t just hand them over as soon as I got them.) I love that album (and it’s self-titled predecessor) without reservation or hesitation. From the jump, you know that the Violent Femmes have abandoned, to a large degree, the adolescent angst that made something like “Kiss Off” or “Prove My Love” work. “Country Death Song” is a totally different animal, drenched in a more adult kind of pain, dripping with a powerfully creepy religious vibe and, perhaps most importantly, telling a really compelling story. Everyone relates to the sexually charged non-sequiturs of “Blister in the Sun” Nobody is on the same page as the narrator in “Country Death Song.” I’ve listened to that track a thousand times and it still freaks me out. When Gano holds the note on “never-stopping pain” I still get the goosebumps. The rest of the record is as good, even if it doesn’t quite ever get the emotional high of the opener; “I Hear the Rain,” “Black Girls” and “Jesus Walking on the Water” are all top-drawer. Why the lengthy discussion of a 25 year old record today? I feel like as music listeners, we look for things that remind of us things that we love. (This is essentially the premise of something like Pandora, right?) I know that I do this; there are maybe ten albums that I’ll love for the rest of my life because of their presence at my formation as a music lover. I look for records that give me the same feelings, link the same things together. I was reading the Aquarium Drunkard’s stellar piece on Source Tags & Codes yesterday and this argument started to gel for me. I love that record, but it came out when I was 24. I love it because I loved Fugazi first. I love it because I loved the first Clash record. Source Tags & Codes, while amazing, exists for me in the context of everything that came before it for me. All this to say that there are two records released this year that, to my ear, spring directly from the seeds planted by Hallowed Ground. Southeast Engine’s deliberate and thematic story-telling, decided religious bent and overall vibe owe (in my eyes) a huge debt to the Violent Femmes. The record doesn’t sound particularly like anything on Hallowed Ground, but it sure as hell feels like it. (The other record that rings the Femmes bell for me this year is Salvation is a Deep Dark Well from the Builders and the Buthcers. More on that later this week.)
The record tells the story of a cartographer working for the government to find off-shore oil wells. As the narrative develops, he realizes how badly he’s compromised himself and ultimately walks into the sea, intent on giving his body back to the land that he helped to defile. There’s a three song mini-cycle at the beginning of the record that serves to introduce the narrative; I had it wrong in my original review. Frontman Adam Remnant told us that it was, essentially, a dream sequence at the band’s summer Beachland gig. There’s no filler on the record, each song serving to both advance the broader narrative. By moving their cartographer through his guilt, Southeast Engine address what it means to be an American in the new millennium; we’re all driving hard on the highway towards an unlivable land and not really slowing down to notice all the flowers we’re mowing down. Just as important as the broadly-arching deep themes, each track is catchy as hell. The moment most reminiscent of Hallowed Ground comes on “Two of Every Kind,” the record’s fifth track. It details the narrators descent into morally questionable territory. Remnant sounds like Gano’s murderous farmer, but the tune swings a touch harder. It’s tough to pull out a favorite song from the record, as none of them suck, but “Two of Every Kind” is in the lead.
For it’s musical acuity, ambitious scope and ability to remind me of the classics (and embedded symbolism, smart-guy allusions, killer musicianship and so on), From the Forest to the Sea is an easy pick for my year end list. I know that this review was all intro and no meat, but the record speaks for itself. Listen to this thing (if you haven’t already) and love it.