I really didn't expect to love Santah as much as I do.
In fact, I was hesitant to review White Noise Bed, the band's debut album, out of the fear I'd be less than impressed with another one of Chambana's darlings and have to weather the backlash. I had heard nothing but generic praise, and so of course, in my cynicism, I thought, Oh no, I'm going to hate this.
White Noise Bed is entirely not the album I expected. It's not enthusiastic indie pop. It's not three years' worth of songwriting stuck together and called an album. It's not forced; it's not hasty. It is a shockingly sophisticated album. It is, truly, impressive.
They say in the theatre that you never want to see a performer trying. The same can be said for musicians — the tension of strained effort translates into a painful listening experience. Still, many debut albums fall prey to these forced moments, to the ups and downs of songwriting. They are lauded for their potential, but the product falls short of what the band seems capable of.
Which is why it's so praiseworthy that Santah has put out such a consistent record. This is the critical strength of Santah's music. It feels natural, whole; it feels complete. It rolls along with all the continuity and variations that a good album needs, without any song feeling unnecessary.
To be fair, the band has had plenty of time to ruminate. The group has been gathering a following around C-U for three years now, trying out new songs in and around town to an increasingly enthusiastic audience. A good deal of anticipation seems to have built for Santah's first full-length release, and White Noise Bed delivers.
The album starts off with "Irish Wristwatch," a slowly building opener underscored with patient percussion and filled with the simple blending of electric and acoustic guitar. The song sets the stage for one of the greatest strengths of the album: the restraint inherent in Santah's compositions. Even their grittiest hooks play alongside the stark notes of the keyboard, as in "No Other Women," which opens with heavy bass before quieting into gentle vocals and understated keyboard.
One of the songs that I keep returning to is perhaps one of the most simple: "Merry Ann," a quiet, rhythmic tune guided along by fuzzy guitar and punctuated with steady percussion. Santah plays this pattern of build-and-release artfully throughout the album, keeping your interest without ever playing a tune that can truly be called fast-paced.
But White Noise Bed is not without its catchy moments. "Chips of Paint" dips and dives from staccato vocals to wide, strung-out notes, with lively electric guitar pulling in and out of focus. Likewise, "Neighbors and Cousins (Are We Lovers)" is a perfectly paced closer, with its playful piano notes, spirited guitar, and ample opportunities for group sing-alongs.
But be warned: White Noise Bed is not an album for the lyric-lovers out there. Singer Stan McConnell is rarely the star, instead letting the vocals blend back into the rhythms of each song. I generally have no idea what McConnell is singing about, and I generally don't care. White Noise Bed is not an album that searches for empathy; it doesn't attempt any universal anthems for broken hearts or strained relationships. It's an album that is easy-going even in its most vulnerable moments, and you follow the syllables like notes in progression more than exposition. This is likely why Santah can take sneak in so many opportunities for group "oohs" and "ahhs" and "woaaaahs" without getting cheesy — the vocals aren't the conductor, they're singing from the orchestra alongside Tommy Trafton's keyboards, Steve Plock's drums, Otto Stuparitz's bass guitar, and Mack McConnell's guitar.
The precocious not-quite-newcomers will celebrate their official release tomorrow night at The Canopy Club along with Dr. Manhattan and Grandkids. For you Mack McConnell fans out there, take the opportunity to catch his very last show with the band. Background vocalist and guitarist Vivian McConnell, while not on the recording of White Noise Bed, has been playing with the band since February and will be sticking around to help fill the musical hole Mack will leave behind. Get plenty of rest and drink your coffee — bands start at 10 p.m., so you can expect to make a night of it. For $7 you can catch all three acts, and plan to pick up a copy of White Noise Bed for yourself.