Slaughter Beach, Dog is the buttoned-up solo project of Modern Baseball co-frontman Jake Ewald. The Philly-based songwriter first introduced the project with 2016’s Welcome, a collection of songs that felt like they didn’t quite fit in with his previous work with Modern Baseball. The songs were more laid-back and less overtly personal, though still obviously rooting themselves in late-90s emo and indie rock. On Birdie, the latest LP from Slaughter Beach, Dog, Ewald severs his roots, trading the punk rock fervor of fellow emo-revivalists Joyce Manor and Into It. Over It. for the folk and country stylings of the Silver Jews and Wilco.
Full of fingerpicked acoustic guitars, dinky keyboards, and slide guitars, Birdie feels almost obtrusively autumnal. As low-key and soothing as a New England October breeze, this album boasts Ewald’s most ubiquitous instrumental backdrop to date, so much so that it can sometimes be hard to tell when he moves from one song to the next. During a first listen, Birdie seems SO chilled-out and stripped-back that it can almost feel forgettable and lackluster. However, upon closer inspection, this is far from the case; the real genius of Birdie lies not in its instrumentals, but in its lyrics.
Full of fingerpicked acoustic guitars, dinky keyboards, and slide guitars, Birdie feels almost obtrusively autumnal.
Where Ewald’s work with Modern Baseball finds him painting stark pictures of alcohol-infused nights riddled with romance-induced anxiety, Birdie’s lyrics use his gift for imagery to cover a wider range of topics. “Gold and Green,” the album’s first single, conjures childhood memories of shyness, siblinghood, and going to church on Sundays, followed by a vivid depiction of making records in one’s bedroom. In many ways, this track best demonstrates Ewald’s newfound interest in country music, borrowing a chorus from a song made famous by John Denver. “Those nights your house kept secrets / We’d stumble up the stairs / My hands tore through your records / While your hands unpinned your hair,” Ewald almost whispers on “Phoenix,” the album’s opener: an acoustic ballad chronicling a relationship in a nostalgic, almost wistful way.
Birdie’s lyrics use his gift for imagery to cover a wider range of topics.
“We sat down on his bed / The sunset gave way to the stars / Then Lewis taught me how to play guitar,” he sings on “Pretty O.K.,” an upbeat tune about growing up in suburbia, with a chorus that’ll have you singing along by the end of your first listen. “Bad Beer” and “Sleepwalking” address the pains of constant touring, with laments such as “I can’t take all these locals, Annie / When all they do is scoff at us” and “Can’t a guy just drink in peace?” “Shapes I Know” is a laid-back, Shins-esque rumination on the doldrums of urban living, while “Fish Fry” runs through the problem of feeling okay during the day, only to have bitter loneliness set in once nighttime rolls around. “Buttercup,” an acoustic waltz, tells the end of the relationship covered in “Phoenix” after a long night of drinking, full of heart-wrenching lines such as, “We wait for your ride / With you standing by my side / And you know / It ain’t me / That you need.”
“Friend Song,” the short, organ-driven, penultimate track, suggests someone returning home after a long while. “Heaven is soft / Hell is a short walk,” Ewald sings longingly, the ennui of a day at home palpable. On Birdie, Ewald truly saves the best for last. “Acolyte,” the album’s closer, is not only the unequivocal best song on the album; it reigns among the best songs Ewald has ever penned. The album’s longest song, clocking in at just over 5 minutes, is a vivid snapshot of being young and blindingly in love. On this track, he gives into the youthful proclivity for arrogance and wishing time to pass, singing, “Man it cuts like a dull knife / When you’re young and you’re told / Makes sense when you’re older / Darling, let’s get old.”
An album’s artistic success can be succinctly defined as its ability to accurately convey what it sets out to impart, and to enable the listener to experience what the artist felt. Using this definition, Birdie achieves artistic perfection. In a June 2017 interview with the FADER, Ewald described his creative process: “Every morning I could just wake up, go to the coffeeshop, read a book, go home, write a song, eat some food, write more songs, go drink a beer, go to sleep. That’s just what I did, every day, all summer.” With this in mind, Birdie is best experienced as it was written: meandering around a city with no particular agenda. Overall, Birdie is both Ewald’s greatest artistic achievement to date and, in spite of Modern Baseball’s recent split, a hopeful reminder that one of indie rock’s best up-and-coming singer-songwriters is here to stay. Birdie is available via Lame-O Records, and you can catch Slaughter Beach, Dog on tour this fall.
Noah Roth is a songwriter in New York. In his spare time he’s a college student. He loves dogs. You can hear some of his songs here.