Black Eyed Dog hail from Asheville, North Carolina and have a sound that has “been described as somewhere between the pop savvy of Big Star and the alt.country vibe of a band like Wilco”. That’s fine and dandy, but an all-too overused comparison. It seems there needs to be a fresher example of a band to compare others to in terms of pop songcraft than Big Star. It’s true that Alex Chilton’s infamous group had their shining moments, but to hold them up time and time again as the premier darlings of misguided, shoulda-been melodic classic pop rock kings is wearing thin.
The Wilco comparison hasn’t yet gotten as ragged, but it soon will be (even thanks to me). Let’s just say that Black Eyed Dog have their own kind of “grungy” sound. And by that I don’t mean the sound that made Seattle famous. It’s a slow, mannered, yet very end-of-a-long-dirt-road kind of sound. You can almost see the dirt getting slowly kicked up into the sun’s rays as it slowly sinks behind a hill on a summer’s day as you listen to this album.
The famous Mitch Easter helped out on Distance Inbetween, Black Eyed Dog’s second release. Their first, a self-titled affair released in 2000, won accolades from True Tunes Magazine and Miles of Music. That same year, the band also found the album licensed for an episode of Dawson’s Creek. Black Eyed Dog is certainly the little band that could.
The first time I heard the band was on a Paste Music sampler. “Light My Fuse”, which is also included here on Distance Inbetween, was a short, punchy tune that barely peaked over two minutes and did indeed sound like the next best thing in the Most Likely To Succeed Wilco category. The “fact” of the opinionated matter here, though, is that “Light My Fuse” is the highlight of Distance Inbetween and is still all too brief.
Opening with the slow “So Hard”, Black Eyed Dog come off sounding like they’ve recorded a great unheard Teenage Fanclub tune. Lyrics like “Everybody’s goin’ out tonight / Everything is gonna be all right / Everybody’s got a broken heart / So why’s it always gotta be so hard?” are in the same vein of things that were staples of Fanclub albums as old as Bandwagonesque and as recent as Songs from Northern Britain. But wait . . . Teenage Fanclub have always worn their Big Star influence proudly, and now the comparison was just made between them and Black Eyed Dog. It all makes sense now!
That cut aside, Black Eyed Dog slowly turn things more toward the Wilco side of the street, albeit while dragging their feet. There are a too many songs here that plod along at a snail’s pace and feature the same arrangements that make the old itchy skip button finger start to twitch. It’s a bit odd, considering the fact that the title track is a slow, smoky bit of a tune and the one directly after, “Straight Drive”, is a bit of a rough-and-tumble rocker. At times, such as in “Straight Drive”, Black Eyed Dog sound like a more earnest Gin Blossoms, allowing the countryish twang to rock out the band as it will. But there’s just something about the whole package that doesn’t quite go off completely. A lot of these songs are only just over three minutes long, but at times they feel twice that length, perhaps due to the overly sleepy nature of the performances, be they spirited or slow.
That is not to say that Distance Inbetween is a bad album. It’s just one that is content to remain in a certain pattern without venturing too far off. When “Light The Fuse” arrives, it’s enough to make you want to get off and shake that dust off your boots, as the odd incorporation of a bit of synth finally breaks the mold. A welcome change and one that should have lingered, as the band quickly goes back into the Gin Blossoms’ pleasant yet unchallenging turf in songs like “Speak In Tongues” and “Bend Down”, while playing out the Wilco hand in other tunes such as “More Than You Know” and “Jolee”.
Black Eyed Dog and Distance Inbetween are a fine band and album, yet maybe a bit shaggy for their own good. There are times when they sound like they really want to kick out some jams here, but hold themselves back. This may be due to the overall short lengths of the tunes or a set of ideas that start to repeat themselves after the first third of the album. While they do indeed have a fine sound on this album, I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing you’ll pick up on a regular basis. Black Eyed Dog have a comfortable groove, but they need a bit more kick to get all the engines revved to make a truly satisfying and complete album.