Jake Ewald spent a lot of time playing the role of a diamond in the rough. Years spent as one-half of the dynamic tag team duo of frontmen for the band Modern Baseball meant we all got to witness the growing pains that ride the coat-tails of that kind of out of left-field notoriety that came with that title. His songwriting seemed to steadily evolve from the kind of bitter and biting musings of a boy that used humor to mask his inability to process and communicate how he felt into the full-bodied and haunting story-telling that made up his half of Modern Baseball’s magnum-opus, Holy Ghost.
Sometime before his work on Holy Ghost, Ewald adopted the Slaughter Beach, Dog monicker to use as an exercise in songwriting. The goal of the project seemed simple enough; create a fictional universe with characters that strongly represent real people and write the kind of record that weaves a web that’s incredibly intricate. With this project, Ewald opts out of the typical “paint with a wide stroke” technique and instead uses his songwriting like the sharpening tool in photoshop — bring the small stuff to the forefront and use those details to create the kind of imagery that stays with the people you’ve presented it to. Slaughter Beach, Dog is the kind of act that could transcend genre because of this. It’s an exercise in somber living that sees Ewald begging you to sweat the small stuff because it’s those details that will really tug at the heartstrings.
Earlier this year, the project released the four-song EP, Motorcycle.jpg, in attempts to bridge the gap between last years Welcome and the soon to be released Birdie. Seeing as the release only had four songs, and one of those was a cover, one would be forgiven if they assumed the brevity of this body of work spoke to the weight of the material in question. I’ve spoken of this elsewhere, but the song “Your Cat” takes everything that makes Ewald’s songwriting feel idiosyncratic and condenses it into one three-minute-long song. The track hangs on the introductory lyric of “She smoked 100s when I met her/She tried to quit before she left me/I’m not so sure if that’s important/Free association gets me dizzy.”
That single lyrical passage was enough to keep me baited long-enough to hear whatever full body of work was to come next. On Birdie, we’re greeted with the adopted drawl that came with the monicker as we’re carried through the hauntingly morose and introductory “Phoenix.” The track is special because it packs enough of a lyrical punch to leave you looking for the bruise you know is sure to follow. It’s this masterfully mapped out minutia, whether it’s based in reality or not, that begs you to continue through the stories being told on this record.
Lead single, “Gold and Green,” does a phenomenal job of showcasing this as well. This is arguably the record’s biggest pop song; equipped with a hypnotic melody and Ewald’s vocals that play off the delightfully bouncy musicianship that turns the phrase “Gonna make this garden grow/Inch by inch and row by row” into one of the most mesmerizing hooks of the year. This is also one of the several instances in which we get to see the lines between Ewald’s fact and fiction really begin to blur. The lyrics “Early winter morning, Beau puts on the coffee/Making records in my bedroom/Tin foil in the heat vents/Get high in the basement/Sing into my mouth” paints a beautiful picture of the time he spent helping to create the Broken Beak record that was criminally overlooked last year.
More recently, the song “Fish Fry” was released unto the world. This is another example of the pure indie-pop meets Mountain Goat’s folk that make up the record. The soft delivery softens the blow of the otherwise harrowing track. Line after line come for you like a death of a thousand cuts — taking a little bit more of you every time you feel the sting. The second verse rings out “Mostly at night I can’t ignore/The feeling of wishing you were with me/All of my friends insist that I/Should really be spending some time alone/Assessing my thoughts/Completing emotional calculations/Deriving psychological sums and suffering slow” and pours into the heart-wrenching gut of the track, a chorus that is sure to resonate with any and everyone. That chorus sees some of Ewald’s most emotive vocal delivery on the record as he pours over the lyrics “One more drink/My heart sinks/Eight weeks gone/Your Ma’s front lawn/White House speech/I can’t speak/Delaware, where oh where are we?”
I can’t and I won’t try to speak for everyone, but I can promise that this Slaughter Beach, Dog record is one that needs to be heard. You may not come back to it when you’re looking for something to mindlessly sing-along to, but you will come back to this record. I’d go so far as to argue that this record is a monumental reminder that Ewald is one of the best songwriters of this generation. The lyricism on Birdie is masterful and poetic, hitting you with a weight that you wouldn’t expect it to have. It will leave you out of breath and begging to hear more. If one thing can be said for certain, it’s that you’ll leave this record saying “Take me to slaughter beach, dog.”
Birdie is out on 10/27 on the always incredible Lame-O Records. You can pre-order that album here, and be sure to keep your eyes fixed to Substream for more Slaughter Beach, Dog news in the future.