Bill Santen – In the Night Kitchen

Bill Santen
In the Night Kitchen

Bland, unmemorable albums are easy to write about. Make some random observations how the sound is reminiscent of either a)the reviewer’s favorite (and obviously better) unknown or undiscovered band in order to impress the reader with the reviewer’s archaic knowledge of undiscovered or unknown bands, b)obligatory scene-making band that pretty much everyone associated with the genre sounds attempts to copy or reference in some fashion, or c)something blaringly off-the-wall in order to make a smarmy attempt at humor.

Next, follow up these astute observations with venomous remarks about the lack of creativity exhibited by the band, how cookie-cutter the sound is, and something derogatory about the lyrics. The trick is doing such a thing in a clever fashion. I sure as hell am unable to pull this sort of thing off, which is why these reviews end up likening themselves to the intentional butchery of the English language rather than something resembling a helpful opinion about the album.

Even more difficult are albums that actually succeed in destroying the conventional view of sounds “good.” Daydream Nation knocks me on my ass every time I hear it (see, not even 200 words in and already I’m tossing out a landmark album by a seminal artist), but damned if I could come up with an objective review of said piece without veering off into mindless pandering or worse, telling college stories of the illicit debauchery Sonic Youth handily soundtracked.

Bill Santen, while sounding nothing whatsoever akin to Thurston Moore and company, has released a straightforward unabashedly honest and brilliant record with In the Night Kitchen. I’ve had the album in my nifty little em pee three player for over two weeks now and I haven’t been able to go a day without listening to it. Formerly of alt-country act Birddog (and to be honest that information has been pulled straight from the world wide web as I know nothing of Birddog or Bill for that matter previous to hearing this album), Bill Santen weaves songs out of acoustic guitar, harmonica, the occasional string, and his open vocals. Every song bleeds country-goth perfection.

“Hustler” opens the album with laid-back harmonica and acoustic chords reminiscent of golden-age Dylan. Vocally, Santen recalls the acoustic work of Blake Sennet from his work with The Elected or Will Hart (what, you didn’t think I was going to let a new paragraph go without namedropping, did you?). Lyrically he stays rooted in the classic folk roots of Dylan. Think Iron & Wine without the overwhelming obsession with death and the South. Not that everything is campfire songs and s’mores in Santen’s world. “Gold Watch Blues” carries the flag for the working man, spouting lines like “if you’ve come to work for us this you must agree / if you’re gonna die please do it during tea” over a timeless acoustic riff that is immediately addictive and familiar.

“Brooklyn” is hands-down the best drinking ballad since “Alabama Song” and everything Kasher has yet to write for The Good Life. However, whereas Morrison was covering the standard in order to sex it up and Kasher writes about drinking as just another extension of his glorious self-loathing, Santen manages to capture the intense satisfaction of singing for no one in particular in a smoked-filled bar. When the chorus of “the Jameson sure kept you swinging / with alcohol you’re fit for singing” hits, the urge to sing softly into a dark alcoholic beverage (or hell, even morning coffee) is too strong to resist. I get a lot of odd looks at school in the morning.

If the realistic bastards among us were to bind my feet and force me at gunpoint to lodge one complaint against this gem of an album, I would probably with much coercion (and really gunpoint is so passé these days) begrudgingly admit some the album is over too quick. The longest track on the album runs 3:45. In the age of eight-minute remixes and extended acoustic jams, it is possibly Bill Santen will come off as too loose or unrehearsed. Arguably, that is what makes the album so exceptional. Each track begs repeated listen just to catch the lyrical nuances or lose oneself in the quickly passing melody. While In the Night Kitchen is making no attempts to open up new unexplored wormholes in the tumultuous galaxy that is modern music, it easily lives up to its predecessors and inspirations. Drink Up.