Perhaps it only seems that acoustic guitar playing, perfectly harmonizing, grizzly bearded campfire singers are old hat. Then again, maybe it’s all too common only to those who call the mountains home. Whatever the case, the Straw Dogs’ sophomore release was a hard sell—with every other such “unplugged” hippy band within 50 miles making equal or better music at pubs and coffee shops on a damn-near nightly basis, what made the Seattle-based singer-songwriter duo so special? What do David von Beck and Darren Smith honestly have to call their own? Each nasally mixture of sensitive male vocals blends into the next same-sounding song over and over. It’s the same ballad, 12 times in a row. That’s 12 chances for the doe-eyed bastards to steal your girlfriend from you, leaving you alone with a tinfoil dinner meant for two. And that’s when the first layer of any place at all gets removed.
On the surface, it is squeaky-clean Indigo Girls, only done by a couple of guys. It’d be easy to leave the Dogs alone to that generic a description and call it good. But, as has been the case with any band catering to the java-sipping, head-bobbing college crowd, the goods are hidden in the lyrics. Look past the stuff so awash in groovy Simon & Garfunkel undertones and you’ll find the duo is mighty with the pen. And, for some reason, the better-written songs on the album interject the playing of the piano to go along with their dual guitars.
Take “Always the One”, for instance. Much like the gamut of songs here—full of either yearning for affection or the desire to save failing relationships—its subject pines for the love he knew was there, but had foolishly lost regardless. The idea isn’t new, by any means, but the way it’s put across has just the right touches of creativity. Lines like “You sleep in my heart / I know when you roll over because it wakes me up again” and “They promised our children would blame us if we ever gave them time” aren’t exactly standard. Then again, neither are the beards combined with the evident used-car salesman jackets, I guess.
It’s songs like “One”—and “These Ashes” and “The Way You Fade” even—that at least expose the Dogs’ desire to put themselves in the limelight because of a love for music. Although they deal solely with love—in the sappiest sense of the word—the band’s songs are well-written and even deep. With capable guitar-playing and tolerable vocals, they display a desire to get as close as possible to Pop without quite entering that realm. It’s safe to say the Straw Dogs will remain on the fringes now and possibly throughout their existence but, as the album’s title suggests, that works fine.