Deer Tick’s first album “War Elephant” released in 2007 was largely a solo recording effort from John McCauley. Initially performing live as a trio, with departures as well as additions over the intervening years, the Providence, Rhode Island band is now expanded to a quintet. The constant figure is bandleader John McCauley who provides one of the defining features of Deer Tick through his gruff vocal which rasps, strains and emotes as though he were sixty-four rather than (an unlikely) twenty-four years old. For such a relatively young band Deer Tick sound not only mature beyond their years but authentically steeped in the traditions they traverse. The music on their third album “The Black Dirt Sessions” is a rich confluence of country-rock, folk-blues and a gnarled Americana, shot through with a dirty strain of good ol’ rock and roll.
Named after the upstate New York studio it was recorded in, “The Black Dirt Sessions” was released in June this year to a less than complimentary review from Pitchfork, which attacked the band for a lack of progression amongst other things. The band responded with an equally scathing but much funnier parody of the review. The latter is worth enjoying but rather than wasting time with the views of Pitchfork I’d suggest diving straight into the record.
It starts with the soft organ and twitching guitars waltz of ‘Choir of Angels’ featuring – yes – a children’s choir. Its innocent tones may be soothing or even hopeful but the outlook for the remainder of album is frequently bleak. “Everyone is alone in this world” is the central theme of ‘Hand In My Hand’. ‘Goodbye, Dear Friend’ is a sad pall-bearer elegy with just piano and croaking voice: “you carry on / in pictures and in song”. ‘The Sad Sun’ is a strummed acoustic number of world-wearied (and potentially suicidal?) hopelessness: “The sad sun was telling me that / You'll never see his light again / All rolling around with no skin / And your wrists cut from start to end”.
For all the despondency and the flashes of anger in McCauley’s raw, exposed lyrics and his rawer vocals, the music is often quite uplifting. There is also something quite traditional about the record – it is not ‘alt-country’ in the sense of pulling apart the genre or undermining it. The disparate styles are treated with a workman-like even joyous reverence that counters the lyrical dejection. There can also be uniformity to some of the mid-tempo numbers where the maudlin country-rock unmemorably merges into one. But there are enough distinct and stand-out tracks to bring praise to the record as a whole.
And some more of those highlights. If I’ve suggested I’m against the bleakness, I adore how it informs ‘Christ Jesus’ - a raw-throated and pained rasp of anger and loneliness with just stark, echoing piano and background string accompaniment. The five minute-plus ‘Mange’ starts with Southern boogie guitar which morphs into a solemn but chiming komische rhythm with touches of crashing cymbals and then honky-tonk piano before escalating into a noisy flailing guitar freak-out. Dark, self-loathing and intimations of mortality (“I’ve gotta tie up all my loose ends before my skin turns to mange”) are turned into a soaring almost triumphal anthem.
It’s the second song on the album but ‘Twenty Miles’ feels like a good song to finish on if it all sounds too bleak for your liking. McCauley still rasps through this song - but he is at his least embittered. Set to gorgeous piano and violins, the main cause of despondency in this love song is the distance between him and his beloved: "Now I'm 20 miles outside of the place that you live / And I need one more chance now that time's running thin / Well you are the things that make up my dreams / And I've spent every dime that jingles in my jeans / I deserve every stone that's thrown out at me / And I think of your smile, I'm in love with your teeth”
True there is nothing revolutionary about “The Black Dirt Sessions”; but ignore the hipster pasting and there is plenty to be absorbed by. Deer Tick are equally engaging live. NYC Taper has a recent concert from Maxwell's, Hoboken from July this year, NPR caught them live at Newport Folk Festival in 2009 or this week you can catch Deer Tick live across the UK and Ireland.
28 Sept Cargo, London [BUY TICKETS]
29 Sept Brudenell Social Club, Leeds [BUY TICKETS]
30 Sept Deaf Institute, Manchester [BUY TICKETS]
1 Oct Captain's Rest, Glasgow [BUY TICKETS]
2 Oct Auntie Annie's, Belfast [BUY TICKETS]
3 Oct Whelans Dublin [BUY TICKETS]
Deer Tick - Twenty Miles by Partisan Records