Sometimes important moments in our lives can appear to be mundane at first blush – inconsequential until seen through the lens of historical perspective. Woodpecker, the debut album from Deer Scout (the alias of Brooklyn musician Dena Miller), highlights the importance of acknowledging these smaller experiences in our lives and seeing them as something capable of bringing about great change, filled with joy, confusion, and sorrow.
Her voice is a wisp, a gently curling movement which echoes the vocal presence of Chan Marshall or Joanna Newsom. Her acoustic guitar is plucked and fashioned around an exploration of memory and self-awareness, the music a gently looping combination of stringed accompaniments and the occasional electric flourish. The album is a statement on memory in process, a real-time study of how we handle everyday experiences, no matter their individual gravity.
From the opening lilt of “Cup”, the album allows us to get close – painfully close at times – to the heart and weariness of Miller’s life. As she sings “Oh what a strange love you take the shape of / I am afraid of how it will betray us”, we witness the internal struggle that occurs as she remembers the pain of past aches and realizes the extent to which it tints her perception of love. This continues in the acoustic roundabout of “Cowboy”, a song that finds Miller dealing with themes of inadequacy and the consequence of affection in ways which feel all too real. Her voice seems to always be on the verge of collapse, but there is a strength binding the words together, a purpose that draws her back to these memories, and it’s impossible to look away once you’ve acclimated to her world.
She reminisces about the process of creation on “Synesthesia”, a glimpse into the fascinating methods she employs as she outlines the origins of her music. A fiddle dances around her words, a tender movement accentuating the loveliness of the track, giving it the appearance of something held aloft by the slightest breeze. In fact, there’s a feeling of weightlessness moving throughout the album, giving each track an awareness of its own impermanence. This airiness frames these songs as fleeting monuments to the relevance of day-to-day minutiae. However, coupled with the record’s short length, it occasionally reveals a more detrimental lightness that seems to run counter to his idea that small details hold true magnificence, as this is a theme that Miller capably explores through these rather minimal compositions.
Mark Steven Miller, Dena’s father, guests throughout on slide guitar the album, and she even covers “Peace with the Damage”, a track that was originally recorded by his band Spuyten Duyvil back in 2011. Recently, she acknowledged that this track deals with “the past and regret”, a theme that fits in well with Woodpecker’s overall narrative of experience and perspective driven by specific moments that have informed our development in ways we often can’t comprehend. On “Dream”, she sings, “Can I see you when I get home / I will leave the porch light on”, and it invokes such a longing that you can feel her ache, her need for interaction, in deeper places than can be imagined. Subtle strings and the light thrum of a guitar swirl around, a whisper that sticks around long after the song has run its course.
The album ends with “Afterthought”, a song that brings it all back to love – the one thing that drives all our experiences and memories, whether we realize it or not. A sliding guitar melody and solemn strings wander around while Miller examines the underlying beliefs and associations that tint our view of love, how it becomes a mirror for so many other aspects of our lives. There is danger in love, but also comfort, and the memory of both shapes us as individuals.
These eight tracks might seem slight upon initial listen, but their power comes not from some grand expression of emotion but seem drawn from a more subtle and undoubtedly stronger emotional well, one that forces us to consider all the moments in our lives, not just the ones we perceive as important.
Woodpecker asks that we slow down and understand the process by which we experience the world around us and how we approach the memories made. Everything is important, and nothing is irrelevant. There is something inherently positive about that sentiment, and I think it’s an idea that transcends the borders of our individual histories. Miller doesn’t need walls of sound to convey these complex notions – in this context, all that would seem gratuitous anyway. At 22 minutes, this record is a brief, but not insignificant, detour through the messy and joyous times in our lives and the ways in which we hold on to and accept the reality of those experiences.