Slaughter Beach, Dog will put your heart back together

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      It’s raining, the snow is melting, and the city has spent several hours blanketed with the smell of burning plastic. But none of that stops an eager crowd from packing the Rickshaw Theatre to see Slaughter Beach, Dog.

      “Dreamy” gets thrown around a lot as a descriptor these days—especially by this writer, who uses it as shorthand for everything from ethereal lo-fi to surreal experimentalism—but it’s hard to think of a more fitting adjective for the openers, Austin indie-folk band Sun June. With their latest album, 2023’s Bad Dream Jaguar, leaning heavily into the sonic gaussian blur, the Texan outfit sound less like they’re from the American South and more like they’re from a hypnagogic hallucination. 

      The five live members provide a mellow start to the show, with vocalist Laura Colwell commenting on Vancouver’s “good vibes.” The band provides its own good vibes, sharing a group hug at the edge of the stage before picking up their instruments.

      While Sun June’s music could run the risk of sounding generic, it’s saved by Colwell’s evocative soprano, some jazzy bass and percussion, and—most notably—a live saxophonist, whose presence really rounds out the sound. Nobody can resist a sick sax solo, especially not a crowd of indiecore enjoyers in damp knitwear.  

      Slaughter Beach, Dog have a similar energy. When the indie rock band arrive on stage, there’s very little talking, as they power through four songs off 2023’s Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling without even as much as an acknowledgement that there’s an audience in attendance. Maybe it’s because it’s a folkier vibe than a lot of their other music—or maybe people just had less time to get accustomed to the lyrics—but the response is notably cautious.

      That changes as the band powers through their set, loosening up and beginning to interact with the crowd. Ringleader Jake Ewald, previously of the short-lived but influential Modern Baseball (along with bassist Ian Farmer), is a low-key but charismatic host. He mostly concentrates on playing guitar, baseball cap partially obscuring his eyes, until the second chunk of songs. 

      Leading off with “Pretty O.K.” from the band’s best-known record, 2017’s Birdie, the vibe shifts. Even the other new tracks seem to find a warmer reception as the first-date awkwardness of the night melts away. A moodier block of tracks comes next, kicked off with the tragic folk story of “Black Oak” and capped off with a cover of Townes van Zandt’s classic country track “If I Needed You.” 

      Ewart takes a moment to apologize for cancelling a 2022 show at the Hollywood Theatre—“Hey, we’re here now!”—and thank the crowd for coming out. Some of his rare crowd-work is drowned out, however, by a guy in the seats, who hollers, “Cut my fucking arm off!” with such John Oliver-hitting-on-Adam Driver passion that the confused mutterings absolutely derail whatever is being said.

      In between the songs’ bridges and final refrains, there’s a lot of instrumental noodling. Ewald seems most home away from the mic, leaning his forehead against Farmer’s as the two of them jam out in meandering, haunting breakdowns. For a band whose (sometimes inscrutable) poetic lyricism provides much of the draw, these segments highlight the musical power behind the words. 

      “Acolyte” sees the crowd absolutely lose it, as the floor rumbles with a sudden pit of pogoing fans. That energy keeps going into the encore—for some reason, presaged by Farmer ringing a comically tiny bell—which sees some of the biggest hits come in for a home run. “Are You There”, “Your Cat”, and “104 Degrees” are three of this author’s stand-out tracks from Slaughter Beach, Dog’s discography; and, judging by the sea of bouncing bodies, that’s true for a lot of the assembled Vancouver masses, too. 

      It’s hard to begrudge Slaughter Beach, Dog for its gentler direction on more recent releases. The band, after all, has released five studio albums and two EPs in a decade of genre-shifting experimentation; music is best when it’s from the heart, and true to whatever the artist really wants to make. But it’s hard to imagine any of the new stuff packing the same emotional gut punch as “Acolyte” or “104 Degrees”. Maybe that’s the point: that the time for those big, bold strokes is over. 

      At the centre of all of Slaughter Beach, Dog’s music is an earnest belief in people; an optimistic nihilism; a hushed-voice wonder at the fragile beauty of human connection. Maybe the band has already written enough songs that break your heart. And now—Ewert headbanging so hard his hat flies off, guitarist Adam Meisterhans falling to his knees, drummer Zack Robbins crashing around, Logan Roth smashing his hands into three different keyboards—it’s time to write the songs that only come from joy.