Formed at college in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Dillon Fence started out as earnest as a country pastor and just as culturally stimulating. Although impressively accomplished in a vein indisposed toward crummy playing and singing, the clear, polite and bland guitar pop/soul of the quartet’s self-released six-song debut makes it easy to appreciate the fact that Hootie and the Blowfish opened for Dillon Fence in those days. (The future platinum-minters actually get thanked on Rosemary.) Variable-voiced guitarist Greg Humphreys seems to have spent too much time studying the singing styles of Sting, Ali Campbell, Morrissey and Paul Young, but his trick of flattening notes at the end of lines is at least distinctive.
Exchanging drummers, Dillon Fence stabilized its lineup in time for Christmas (a three-song seasonal release): Humphreys, guitarist Kent Alphin, bassist Chris Goode and drummer Scott Carle. On the full-length Rosemary, a rerecording of Dillon Fence’s “Something for You” matches the album’s tone by cranking the guitars into a genial roar. That approach works wonders on “Daylight,” but Dillon Fence is still finding its feet here, and — with the high-fiber moralism of “Sad Inheritance,” the disillusioned grumpiness of “Summer” and the aw-shucks insecurity of “Guilty” — the album is pasty-faced and nice-guy noxious. The Daylight EP gets its soaring title track and “Hey Mockingbird” from the LP, adding an acoustic (with flute and violin) improvement on “Sad Inheritance,” the otherwise unissued funk-junk of “Sugarcane” and a rushed cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming.”
Producer Lou Giordano pushes Dillon Fence to new heights of wimp-distortion on Outside In, letting Humphreys and Alphin foam up sensual acres of pop fuzzage that provide an excellent bed for their voices. A little alterna tonic bolsters Humphreys’ singing: his quiet cooing and bursts of enthusiasm make fine ingredients in these gently sizzling pop clouds. Burying the lyrics is also a good idea; whatever he’s on about in “Collapsis” is rendered too elusive to interfere with the seductive undertow coming out of the amps. The album’s consistently appealing surface belies its diversity: Alphin’s “One Bad Habit” ably apes the Lemonheads, “Any Other Way” does white-soul with woozy confidence, “Headache” socks a Joan Jett crunch to glorious Beatlesque production pop and “Black Eyed Susan” lays on the harmonies like vintage Association. Without turning into postgraduate delinquents, Dillon Fence make magical mudpies here. (In a dubious career move, “Any Other Way” was chosen as the single from Outside In; the EP contains a terrible live version of a second album track, a frisky cowpunk cover and a sweet non-LP original, “Circle in the Sand.”)
Having expanded the guitar end of its sonic spectrum, the group buttresses the bottom on [Living Room Scene], a harder-hitting rock album with more bottle and a shade less charm than its immediate predecessor. Humphreys exercises a raspy Rod Stewart voice (which he intimated on Outside In) and a fat ’70s Gibson SG tone on the title track, then downplays both in the cushy electric soul folds of “Laughs” and the squalling harmony pop of “Queen of the In-Between.” For the rest of the record, the band shifts among loud and soft rock-soul-pop poles in a pinball carom further complicated by letting Alphin sing his two compositions and Goode his one. If Dillon Fence shows no signs of integrating its elements into a single sound, the corners that contain it aren’t being stretched any further apart. And with a steady flow of memorable songs able to withstand whatever type of arrangement comes up on the spinner, [Living Room Scene] sounds like the final warm-up for a truly great record. Then Alphin left to form Granger.