by Mia Hughes
Until recently, Slaughter Beach, Dog was a side project: Jake Ewald’s quieter outlet alongside his day job co-fronting Modern Baseball. Side projects tend to be born as a resolution to restriction (Slaughter Beach, Dog no exception: its beginnings in a songwriting exercise that saw Ewald write for the first time from fictional perspectives) and that usually makes their results inherently interesting. Put something in a box, then take the box away – everything becomes newly dynamic. That’s how Slaughter Beach, Dog has always felt – like all of its motions are fluid and graceful.
It’s not a side project anymore, though. With Modern Baseball now on indefinite hiatus, Ewald has fleshed SBD out with a full lineup: Ian Farmer – his former Modern Baseball bandmate and frequent collaborator with the project – is on bass, with fellow Philadelphia scene familiars Nick Harris of All Dogs and Zack Robbins of Superheaven on guitar and drums respectively. That lineup has been playing together live for a while, and it shows in the solidity and ease with which they play together on this record.
With four people contributing and the project now a full-time band, it’s probably not surprising that this record feels a little stiffer from the start than previous albums, a little less nimble in places. The opening two songs, for example, ‘One Down’ and ‘Good Ones’, feel familiar as Slaughter Beach, Dog songs, but the melody of ‘One Down’ grows slightly stale by the end, and the instrumentation behind Ewald in ‘Good Ones’ feels a little unimaginative. They’re likeable enough songs, not at all unenjoyable (‘Good Ones’ particularly has a great melodic touch), just not Ewald’s strongest.
Still, that’s only a small distraction from the fact that there’s a lot of promise in the record, much of it found in the way it deftly avoids one-noteness. There’s a three-song run in particular that takes things from psych-folk in ‘Black Oak’, to lo-fi acoustic in ‘Petersburg’, to brilliantly catchy rock in ‘Tangerine’. Slaughter Beach, Dog has never been too confined to any singular sound, but it seems the addition of the full band is allowing Ewald to stretch himself stylistically more than ever. To style-hop yet still feel focused as the band does here is a testament to his songwriting.
‘Petersburg’ is a standout: it’s just Ewald with an acoustic and a tape hiss, the least built-up moment of the album, and it’s all the better for it. Ewald is good at subtly taking his melodies where you wouldn’t quite expect, and that’s what he does here, while his lyrics are most charming when hinged on simple imagery (‘Daily he would read the news / Tie up his busted walking shoes / Take the train somewhere else and count his money there’). That it comes at the end of this weaker side of the album is a relief, and it ushers in the start of a run as strong as anywhere in SBD’s catalogue – ‘Tangerine’, ‘Heart Attack’ and ‘One Day’. ‘Tangerine’ sounds like Pedro The Lion meets Killers, broody verses into a bold chorus, while ‘Heart Attack’ is an airy acoustic rock tune with, in a rare echoing of Modern Baseball, the record’s singalong moment (‘I’m leaving you a message / I’m having a heart attack / I’m waiting up for you to call me back’). Then ‘One Day’, its ‘Psycho Killer’-esque bassline and guitar drone making for likely the most interesting showcase of the new instrumental lineup.
Even in their weaker moments, where the envelope-pushing feels less successful, many of the songs seem to catch themselves and correct course. ‘Dogs’, for instance, swerves away from Ewald’s usual knack for melody in the verses with a speak-singing delivery, which just seems to emphasise the slight clunkiness (again unusual for Ewald) of the lyrics. Yet the chorus melody is gorgeous, with the acoustic guitar breaking from its verse repetition to complement it beautifully. In ‘Black Oak’, that same vocal delivery meshes a little better with the darker tone of the song, but suffers from an overly long outro that the band doesn’t really take anywhere. But again, it’s far from a dud, and the lovely recurring instrumental break is a reminder of that.
Above all, this is Ewald showing that, bolstered by a full lineup, he can step out of his comfort zone to create some really great moments. His songwriting has always been made by his lyrical and melodic charm, and that’s present as ever on Safe and Also No Fear. With new cooks in the kitchen, it gets slightly suffocated at times, but that’s by no means an indictment of the new lineup or of their future output. In fact, I’m inclined to think that what hearing we’re here is a learning curve as Ewald’s songwriting adjusts to the new dynamic. This probably won’t be a career-defining album for Slaughter Beach, Dog, but it may prove itself a stepping stone to one.