Southeast Engine's records are deeply ingrained with big-picture themes, but you can approach the songs - most of them, anyway - casually, as standalone tracks.
Some TV series are strictly episodic. Episodes function as standalone entities with storylines that wrap up within the allotted hour. See you next week - same Bat time, same Bat channel.
Other shows weave season-long yarns that require more of an investment. It's nearly impossible to enjoy an episode of The Wire or Mad Men without a deep backlog of knowledge gleaned from committed viewing.
It takes a particularly deft team of creative minds to craft a series that works on both levels, each episode standing on its own merits while advancing big-picture arcs. (Lost was like this until the mythology became too complex for newbies.)
In their finest moments, Southeast Engine albums are like that third kind of TV show. The Athens band's records are deeply ingrained with big-picture themes, but you can approach the songs - most of them, anyway - casually, as standalone tracks.
Coming to Terms With Gravity found singer-songwriter Adam Remnant losing an album-long stare-down with God. A Wheel Within a Wheel discovered the divine in the context of everyday life and love.
The new disc From the Forest to the Sea continues Southeast Engine's previous trends, using Noah's Ark as a jump-off point for a journey seeking fulfillment inside and outside the American Dream.
Remnant's narrator references man's exploitation of nature as he weighs the ins and outs of existence, ultimately concluding that mankind has lost its way. Beaten and broken, he finds strength at the bottom of the sea.
The music matches Remnant's back-to-basics tale. The band has always blended Americana traditions with experimental indie rock, but Forest finds them closer to the backwoods than ever, dabbling in nervous blues, country and gospel. While the record features fewer immediately accessible showstoppers than usual, it's as dense and rewarding as anything they've released.
Southeast Engine plays The Treehouse Friday with The Coke Dares, The Kyle Sowashes and Frontier Ruckus.
Channeling Joy Division by way of Interpol, Russenorsk builds eerie, angular indie rock that sounds much bigger than the three musicians behind it. Credit much of that bombast to looped guitars and cellos, along with Tim Race's harrowing howl.
Throughout debut disc Comforts, the singer spouts grim poetic ramblings about fathers, mothers, devils and gods, but buoyed by the widescreen arrangements underneath, all that nasally anguish sounds just right.
Race sings with an authority foreign to most whiny college frontmen, owning every wavering syllable and lending appropriate gravity to songs that otherwise might collapse under the weight of so much angst and ambition.
"Give Me the Devil" is the obvious highlight, a chilling bit of new-wave nostalgia with the kind of chorus that demands you sing along, even as you mangle every impenetrable lyric.
Wheels on Fire
"I'm just 25 but I feel so old!" Mike Chaney screams, just before droning organ chords give way to the rollicking guitar outro of "Too Stubborn to Fold." The track is one of numerous showstoppers on Get Famous, the breakthrough release from Athens garage-rock vets Wheels on Fire.
Chaney has reason to feel old. He and bandmate John Garris write the kind of tunes that have been rock's stock and trade since before Elvis. Granted, there's also a punk-rock power coursing through every capillary, but even that most youthful of genres is three decades old at this point.
The Union breeds this kind of music en masse. The Makebelieves, Dragline Bros. and Dropdead Sons have been staples at Athens' rock epicenter for years, and many generations of bang-bang rock 'n' roll came before them.
But it's rarely delivered with as much pop pizzazz as this bunch has brought to the table. Wheels on Fire may not actually get famous, but they deserve at least a little recognition for absolutely killing it this time out.