Let it be said here for the record: Jeff Giles can make you feel like a superhero.
When he dropped me a line, showered me with praise, and offered me the opportunity to write a regular column for Popdose about my favorite unheralded pop albums, for one shining moment, I imagined how Batman must’ve felt when Commissioner Gordon called the Batcave and told the Caped Crusaders that Gotham City needed their help. Of course, Mr. Giles in no way needs my help, given the fantastic staff of writers he’s already got here (not to mention the fact that he’s a fine essayist in his own right). But, still, he made me feel like I’d be adding something to the site and he played to my ego, so here I am with my first entry of Hooks ‘N’ You.
To start things off, I thought I’d spotlight a band who were pretty big regionally, if never as huge nationally as they should’ve been: Dillon Fence.
Normally, I won’t be covering more than one release at a time in these columns, but in my mind, I find it virtually impossible to separate the songs on the band’s self-titled EP from the songs on their first full-length album, Rosemary. It’s at least partially because they share a common song (“Something for You”), but, mostly, it’s because it was between the two releases that I first began to see the band perform live, so I was hearing songs from both platters from the get-go.
As it happens, though, the first time I ever heard anything from the band was when they contributed to a 1990 Mammoth Records various-artists disc entitled Frequency, which provided a sampling of the up-and-coming NC Triangle scene of the early ’90s, including artists like Vanilla Trainwreck, Blackgirls, and Johnny Quest. (Anyone else remember “The Heisman”?) Admittedly, most of the bands resulted in little more than a resounding “meh” from me, but there was one song that I kept returning to again and again and, yes, still again: Dillon Fence’s “Frances.” It’s like someone slapped Greg Humphreys across the face with a glove and challenged him to write the perfect three-and-a-half-minute tribute to the Smiths, both musically and lyrically; his bandmates have the Marr/Joyce/Rourke sound down, and although Humphreys’s voice is decidedly deeper than Mozzer’s, by God, he’s got the lyrical angst down.
Pardon me, Frances
For I have sinned
If I’ve taken all of your money
Or taken all of your time,
I feel that I should be sorry
For such a horrible crime
Later in the song, when Humphreys moans, “Oh, I’m so tired of the good life / I want to love and hate and kiss and kill,” you’d be hard-pressed to believe the guys from the Fence grew up in NC rather than Manchester.
Don’t worry, though, Smiths hatas: Dillon Fence was a far cry from just being a Smiths tribute band. The aforementioned self-titled EP features five other songs beyond “Frances,” and although they’re all catchy as hell, none are quite so overt in paying tribute to any other artist. There’s a funky jangle to both opener “Something for You” and closer “Ben Franklin’s Theme”; in between, there’s “Unlucky Soul,” which has the bounce of a Barenaked Ladies song without the curse of too-clever lyrics, while both “Why” and “For Awhile” find the band in more of a rock frame of mind than the other tracks.
After a year or two of touring throughout North Carolina and up and down the East Coast, the boys in the Fence hit the studio to record that full-length debut, teaming with producer Ron St. Germain, who’d mixed the Godfathers’ Birth School Work Death, engineered Living Colour’s Vivid, and produced Sonic Youth’s Goo. (I don’t know where your musical tastes were in the early ’90s, but this was certainly a resumÃ© that made me stand up and take notice.) St. Germain took Dillon Fence’s pop songs and really made them shine, the best example of which can be heard on “Hey Mockingbird.” I mean, that opening guitar bit â€¦ well, there’s no other word for it: it sparkles.
But don’t take that to mean that the proceedings are too polished. Whether they were toughened up by their experiences on the road or if it was simply the changing musical climate, the band’s material definitely had a more consistent guitar-rock feel than it had when they recorded the EP. It’s evident from the very start, via the ripping guitar solo on lead track “Daylight,” and it’s at the forefront on “Playful” and “How Did You Get So High,” as well some shredding during the epic “I Will Break.” (That last track also finds Humphreys providing a particularly strong vocal performance.) There are still quite a lot of pop songs, though, with “Sad Inheritance” and “I’ll Wait” jangling along at a leisurely gait, and “Guilty” throwing a tiny bit of brass into the fun.
The Dillon Fence story continued for a few more years and a few more producers â€” Lou Giordano helmed 1993’s Outside In, while Mark Freegard worked with the band on 1994’s major-label debut turned swan song, Living Room Scene â€” before the band dissolved, but discussions of those albums will have to be saved for another occasion. For now, though, it’s worth noting that the band actually has a best-of collection that was released in 2004 and, in addition to providing an exemplary sampling of all of their albums and the EP as well, it also features a second disc that includes seven newly recorded songs that aren’t half bad either. In closing, you might also want to check out Humphreys’s current band, Hobex, who are decidedly more soul-influenced than Dillon Fence but still have some fine damn tunes in their repertoire. (They also put on a kickass live show, if they should ever pass through your neck of the woods.)