It’s hard not to feel apprehensive about listening to albums from side projects. Frequently, these projects are critical tossups; even if the band from which they stemmed is otherwise great, striking gold outsides those confines is a rare occurance. When that original band is Modern Baseball—a Philadelphia-based band entrenched in a scene where fans discuss similar artists in terms of which emo wave they originated from—the risk of a side project being tossed off is very real. That’s exactly the scenario Modern Baseball co-frontman Jake Ewald is in with his singer-songwriter outlet Slaughter Beach, Dog.
When listening to Slaughter Beach, Dog’s Birdie (Lame-O Records), there are some matters to take into account before analyzing the album through the lens of Modern Baseball. Outside of a few final October shows, Ewald’s other band went on hiatus in February, allowing him significant time to make his used-to-be side gig the main one. Then there’s a matter of context: the LP preceding Birdie, the 2016 debut Welcome, was largely composed quickly in the same emo tradition as Modern Baseball. So, the question is if a focused Ewald would differentiate Birdie from Modern Baseball and from its past?
The answer is pretty much, yeah. Signaled by July’s Motorcycle.jpg EP, the Slaughter Beach, Dog of now veers toward folkier and traditional arrangements centered around acoustic guitar. Birdie’s songs do indeed sound like they were written (as Ewald attests) in a friend’s basement and with more time and consideration, precisely the kind of album you put out when you can take a break from your headlining band.
The only thing connecting Birdie back to Welcome is how Ewald again focuses on writing about fictionalized subjects as opposed to personal matters. Given the textural shift of Birdie, however, the songs deliver here like Weakerthans lite. “Shapes I Know,” a track in which Ewald illustrates how Christmas can be a hellish or heavenly time of year based on different perspectives, takes it cues from the Weakerthans’ “Exiles Among You.” Although both Ewald’s and John K. Samson’s stories are seemingly fabricated, they’re nonetheless both profound testaments to human experience.
Unfortunately, Birdie’s power is somewhat buried and requires numerous listens to pull out its strengths. It might’ve been improved by leaning further into artists like Weakerthans and balancing the same sincere lyricism with rock that’s more dynamic. (“Fish Fry” and “Sleepwalking” are almost there; the former could’ve been penned by Matt Berninger.) Whether or not such an approach would involve reverting to parts of Welcome or something else entirely, Ewald has hardly reached his ceiling yet.