REVIEW: Birddog: Songs From Willipa Bay
Birddog: Songs From Willipa Bay [Karma/HHBTM, 2003]
Three words? FM radio ghosts
Birddog is the alias of songwriter Bill Santen, who over the years has worked with some choice musicians: among others, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and troubadour Elliot Smith, who produced Birddog's early releases. On his fourth "full length" (if you can call seven songs in twenty-five minutes an "album"), Santen's band includes the talented Paul Oldham (The Anomoanon) and Jason Loewenstein (Sebadoh).
Occasionally, Willipa Bay hints at an alt-country twang, but Santen's delivery is so straight-ahead that it mostly recalls the aforementioned Mr. Smith - albeit an Elliott Smith who has traded his copy of Let It Be for a few Kenny Rogers records. The tunes are pleasant enough; Santen croons like Neil Young would have, if Young had lived on the Upper West Side and learned to enunciate a little more clearly. The way that Santen drawls plaintively at the end of each verse might even have Young's lawyers on the phone.
Songs From Willipa Bay is like driving down a highway during a thunderstorm, listening to a radio. As you watch the bruised sky, you turn the dial and the stations are full of static, but transmissions sometimes manage to cut through the storm - and you might catch a couple minutes of a song before it fades out again. Birddog's songs come and go with as much presence. Though ably performed and earnestly written, they aren't particuarly memorable. Nevertheless, Bill Santen scores with the lap steel driven "Sycamore," showcasing his strong lyrical sense: "the white trees along/the long avenue/remind me summer, that reminds me of you/arm and arm walking, stumbling and talking/Jessica's tired and she's always working." The lazy lap steel and Santen's drawling vocals create a song set for nighttime FM radio.
Birddog is rarely this strong, however, and that's a shame - because these songs are ghosts waiting to haunt radios, but nobody's there to set them free.