Bill Santen used to release records under the moniker Birddog, and he used to enlist some rather notable talent to help him out, including Edith Frost, Elliott Smith, Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein and Wilco's Glen Kotche. Birddog's records followed an alt.country/folk pattern that was quite good, but Santen never really gained the acclaim he deserved. While I don't know if Birddog has been retired, but after listening to In The Night Kitchen, Santen's first release under his own name, it's quite obvious that he can handle being a solo act.
Shaking the Birddog name has given Santen's music an added depth that Birddog's records just didn't quite have. Using his name means he's standing alone with no monikers to hide behind, and that's liberating. At the same time, it's also apt that he uses his name, as Santen is unaccompanied for all but one song. Starting off with a guitar strum and a haunting harmonica, "Hustler" sets the mood; dark acoustic songs sung with a haunting, heartbreaking voice. Santen sings with a haunted voice that falls somewhere between Neil Young and Elliott Smith, he has the ability to compose songs that both break your heart and stay in your mind.
Recorded on New Year's Day 2004, In The Night Kitchen also has a very immediate, live feel; listening to the heartbreaking "Redbud," the jaunty "Brooklyn" or the upbeat "Down to the Palisades" all resonate with a 'you-are-there' feel that so many solo acts fail to capture. Heck, even the only song with other musicians, "Cincinnati Sings" (which wasn't recorded at the same time as the rest of the record, and was, I presume, meant as a Birddog track) sounds quite nice, and I really wouldn't suggest he should stick to making music all by himself.
Admittedly, In The Night Kitchen caught me by surprise. Perhaps due to its brevity, or perhaps due to the intimate nature of the recordings, or perhaps it's simply that Santen's risen to another level--whatever the case, if you didn't care about (or have never heard) Birddog, In The Night Kitchen shows that Santen's an artist who deserves your attention.
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