Birddog – Songs From Willipa Bay

Songs From Willipa Bay

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of being an indie-rock journalist is that you are granted near-immediate victory in any game of cooler-than-thou one-upmanship. As the game of pretentiousness can quickly descend into a battle to see who can dig into obscurity to find the clearly brilliant band from the past that no one has ever heard or the up-and-coming artist that will soon be hailed as the savior of recorded music as we know it, the indie-rock scribe can hold his or her position while being rarely challenged by those who have to buy their CDs in order to listen to them. The (often wrong) assumption is that a person who gets free CDs in the mail must also have an orderly index of every style-obsessed garage band in New York City and has access to the secret list that bares the names of the bands that will be cool and gone before the average hipster knows they exist. For sure, it’s advantageous and altogether easy to allow that smug assumption to rest unchallenged, but there are always bands that emerge that can lay bare the journalist’s insecurities, making him or her realize that it’s impossible to catch every genuinely worthwhile artist that slides under the door and that such breaches in intelligence have left you seriously vulnerable to attack from the unwashed masses. Birddog is one such band.
The brainchild of Bill Santen, a talent so verifiable that Elliott Smith and Edith Frost have both contributed to his recordings, Birddog is the type of band that elicits disbelief when it’s realized that his band has released four albums to this point. Largely consisting of shimmering, shivering acoustic indie pop, Santen’s songwriting aesthetic is doused in a murky backwater veneer (conceptually if not sonically) that places him on strangely ominous conceptual footing. Nearly as pristine as dream pop, with soft, reverby guitar tones that fill a room so imperceptibly that they could smother you before you notice them, Santen’s songwriting is puzzlingly literate, disturbingly visual, and understatedly beautiful. Radiating a ghostly ambiance with a sly electric slide guitar moaning like it’s mad at having the blues sucked out of it, “The Play” is a perfect slice of dark-winged indie pop, offering a rhetorical drama that invests the song with an undercurrent of uneasiness. That song’s counterpoint, the plaintive rustic strum of “Beaches” evokes the ghastly resonance of Will Oldham (which might be appropriate, as his brother Paul contributes keyboards, bass, and vocals to the album), with startling imagery dropping on clear ringing electric piano.
As such, the effect is as often as unsettling as it is soothing, making you feel somewhat guilty (or at least paranoid) as the bewitching melodies can convince you to take little notice of the tension inherent in the lyrics. For his part, Santen plays the doomed prophet role perfectly, croaking like Isaac Brock on the surprisingly pretty “The Cities” and filling up the illusion of Western expanse with the doom hook of “Red Red Wine,” a song that falls somewhere between a spiritual and a funeral dirge and in a whole other universe from the UB40 track of the same name. Most surprising is the almost stereotypical honky-tonk of “Sycamore,” with trite pedal steel sway overlaying Santen’s Neil Young-crossed-with-Gram Parsons intonation.
All in all, it’s the type of release that could make you positively shame-faced for having not heard of its author. Even at seven tracks, it’s easy to see why Elliott Smith deemed Santen worthy of his collaborative efforts, even though the two come from slightly different ends of the indie angst spectrum. In the end, it’s the kind of album that simply reeks of authenticity and gravity, the type you might want to associate with when an upstart challenges your hipster mettle.