Taking its cues from hallowed ancient sourcesearly Wilco and the Old Testament prophet EzekielSoutheast Engine from Athens, Ohio, has concocted a fascinating amalgam of indie rock, alt-country, and biblical imagery on its third album, A Wheel Within a Wheel. Lead singer-songwriter Adam Remnant has the world-weary soulfulness and rasp of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, and at times their voices are almost interchangeable.
But where Tweedy's cryptic poetics are of a decidedly secular bent, Remnant freely mixes apocalyptic imagery and biblical references with his idiosyncratic love songs and ruminations on faith and doubt. In the midst of an otherwise straightforward love song to his wife, Remnant offers what may be a firstominous imagery lifted straight from the Book of Revelation:
I met a demon with iron teeth
I met a blindfolded angel who refused to speak
I got the feeling they didn't really care about me so I moved on
To find the voice that spoke to me with his eyes like fire
His voice like the sea
Before his seven stars and his holy keys I cried
The sentiments aren't exactly what one expects to find in the middle of a paean to one's beloved, but that's the intriguing conundrum Remnant sets up again and again in these songs. They are suffused with the knowledge of the supernatural and the sure conviction that our tiny earthly acts echo into eternity. And they wrestle with the hard truths of living a life of faith when surrounded by temptation and doubt.
"Taking the Fall" is an energetic rocker that ponders the effects of our Edenic plummet from grace, while "Psychoanalysis" improbably mixes Elton John piano and 21st-century angst with Ezekiel's ecstatic visions. Best of all is "Oh God, Let Me Back In," where the poetics fall away completely and we are left with a straightforward declaration of confession and repentance. It's a fine conclusion to a challenging, distinctive, and frequently beautiful collection of songs.
Andy Whitman, senior contributing editor for Paste magazine.
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A Wheel Within a Wheel is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
More about Southeast Engine is on the band's website.
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