The name of the new full-length issued this fall by local rockers The Long Time Darlings, Honey Tree Evil Eye, began with a sort of silly story. Lead singer and guitarist Brett Staggs made an offhand reference to Spuds McKenzie, the dog from the old Bud Light commercials, and lead guitarist Brian Sproul noted that the dog's real name was Honey Tree Evil Eye. It struck everyone as a great name for a record.
But then it ended up actually taking on some meaning.
"We were still really figuring out what we wanted to sound like when we were putting this album together," Staggs explains. The band had put out two EPs previously, but was still establishing a system for writing material. The members realized that the material on the album could pretty easily be bifurcated; they made Honey Tree the "A-side" (inasmuch as that can exist on a CD), and Evil Eye the "B-side."
"Going forward, I think we're more in the Evil Eye vein of things," Staggs notes.
In this case, that means more Southern-fried metal, less ballads and straightforward rock.
The Long Time Darlings got their start in 2008, when Staggs, a Grove City College grad, returned to Pittsburgh with his wife. They'd been living in Austin since 2005, and Staggs was primarily playing drums on the Austin scene.
"I was writing so much, I decided before I came back to Pittsburgh I'd get rid of my drum kit -- I sold it before I even left Austin," he explains. "Because I knew if I had it when I came back, somebody would ask me to play drums with them and I wouldn't be able to say no."
In Pittsburgh, Staggs hooked up with Sproul (once of Chalk Outline Party) and Reid Wellock, who played keyboards with the band until recently switching to bass when Martin Lunn left the band. Doug Kochmanski plays drums.
While The Long Time Darlings began in part as the vehicle for the songwriting Staggs had been doing while in Austin and upon his return to Western Pennsylvania, things have shifted somewhat over the past few years. While Staggs' solo work -- quieter, acoustic music mostly -- has taken off a bit, Staggs says Sproul has become the architect behind most of the band's music.
"He started writing more and more music, and there are really just a few songs on the new record that I wrote," Staggs says. "Now a lot of the time I just write the lyrics for our songs. Then I have to learn it on guitar ... which isn't always easy.
"My writing style is more standard; Sproul does all different things when he writes a song."
Having a solo side project allows Staggs to channel some of his musical ideas in one direction while keeping a certain focus to The Long Time Darlings material.
"It's kind of like seasons of writing," he explains. "I feel like when I'm doing the big rock thing, it's like my subconscious speaking. I would say the solo thing is more the alter ego."
In Staggs' solo work, he takes a measured approach: Where stream-of-consciousness writing and unconventional approaches are largely favored in contemporary alt-folk, he takes standardized forms and challenges himself to use them well. One might call it deceptively intellectual writing. (One might call Staggs himself the same: Sitting at a bar, taking a drag from a cigarette, the gruff-looking thirtysomething can shift with ease from everyday small talk to a discussion of Carl Jung.)
On the other hand, The Long Time Darlings have songs with names like "Son of a Gun" and "Black Hole Valium." It's not stupid music -- the lyrics are still well put together -- but you're not going to find a treatise on gaps in Freudian theory here.
The Long Time Darlings fit, musically, within a tradition of music that has done well in Pittsburgh: The band has received some love from WDVE, and understandably, as some of these tunes could as easily be mistaken for ZZ Top, or George Thorogood. But at the same time, the band aims to appeal across the board. Instead of going for low-hanging fruit and finding a bar where it could get a standing gig and make bank on a weekly basis, Staggs says they like to spread out and play with a diversity of other acts.
"I love playing Ben Hardt, and The Harlan Twins, and Big Hurry," he says. "And I've been consistently surprised at the success of shows like that, where we're playing with very different act."
Besides Sproul's fiery shredding, Staggs' vocals -- powerful and growling, but controlled -- stand out. He realized fairly late in the game, while playing in a "joke band" in college called Brody, that he had some pretty effective pipes. "What is it that artists call it when you take something and -- ‘repurposed,'" Staggs says with a laugh. "My voice is a ‘repurposed object.'"
At the band's Dec. 23 show at Frankie and Georgie's in Squirrel Hill, The Long Time Darlings continue to celebrate the release of Honey Tree Evil Eye. (There was no official "release show," but the band has been promoting the album in various ways since mid-fall.) As four guys in their 30s, the band might not be going all-out and courting labels like a younger group, but that doesn't mean they don't have high hopes for the future.
"I want to fulfill our potential, whatever that is," Staggs says. "If that means staying at this level and playing fun shows, that's awesome. If that means touring the country and having lots of fans, that's awesome."
He thinks for a moment, then adds: "My dream is for things to get totally out of hand. That's the chaos I live for."
THE LONG TIME DARLINGS with THE DIRTY CHARMS. 9 p.m. Fri., Dec. 23. Frankie and Georgie's, 5832 Forward Ave., Squirrel Hill. $5. 412-422-5027