Birddog was the project of Bill Santen, a folk/alt.country musician who had a friendship with Elliott Smith, and recorded a number of his earliest releases at Smith’s home studio. Smith would feature on his third album, released in 2001, as would dark folk singer Edith Frost. 2002’s Songs From Willipa Bay would count Paul Oldham and Jason Lowenstein as his backing band. It’s a brief record; seven songs in twenty-three minutes, but that brevity only added to the charm. It might be short, but it didn’t overstay its welcome, resulting in a succinct mini-album that captivated its listeners and left them wanting more.
Yet it’s Santen’s hushed vocal style that really carries the record. It’s not all acoustic tales, either; you can hear a hint of Crazy Horse on “The City” and “Beaches,” while “$100 Wedding” finds him channeling quite nicely channeling Neil Young. For me, the highlight is the final song on this short record; the lackadaisical guitars and singing on “Willipa Bay” sounds positively heavenly, all humidity and late summer haze, and it feels as if it drifts much, much longer than its relatively brief three minutes.
What ultimately hurt Songs From Willipa Bay wasn’t what it was, but what it wasn’t. Because of the nature of his type of music—dark, acoustic, minimalist narrative songs that nodded to country and folk—and considering several unavoidable facts that should have been selling points (being from Louisville, having Paul Oldham on drums), comparisons to Will Oldham were perhaps inevitable. Reviewers also didn’t seem to like the dark atmosphere that Santen and company created—a fair point, as this record is undeniably dark. It didn’t help Birddog’s case that by this time, Will Oldham-sounding artists had become passé, even though that’s not what Birddog sounded like—his singing style was much more akin to his friend and sometimes collaborator Elliott Smith. Having Will Oldham associates as his backing band led to assumptions—false assumptions at that—that Songs From Willipa Bay was more of the same, a by-product of a cottage industry that had oversaturated the listening audience with derivative-sounding records by the same handful of musicians. Thus, through no fault of its own, an excellent record went unheard and unappreciated, though some—myself included—eagerly awaited the follow-up record that never came.
Santen moved on, quietly retiring the Birddog name, and moved on to becoming an independent filmmaker. He would make one final album, 2004’s In The Night Kitchen, before leaving music entirely. While it’s somewhat disappointing that Songs From Willipa Bay was their last, Birddog left behind an excellent farewell, a record that continues to impress and delight thirteen years on.