Ever since my good friend introduced me to Deer Tick via their Myspace page back in late 2006, I’ve taken a sincere interest in the wonderfully tight yet delightfully roughish workmanship of the Rhode Island folk rock outfit. Though my attention to their independent label releases and ensuing tours can be described as cursory at best, I still hold out hope that John McCauley and his more than capable bandmates can pool their collective resources and release a monumental record–one that might not define a generation (I firmly and perhaps pessimistically believe that the days of Pet Sounds and Kid A are long behind us) but one that can give the paltry few of us who look to rally behind a musical monolith something to run to the pulpit for. On their debut record, War Elephant it was McCauley’s collection of his best songs compiled over a lifetime that made for an impressive, though somewhat disjointed record. Born on Flag Day, their sophomore release put the band’s overall improvement as a cohesive unit on display, staking the claim that, despite McCauley’s empyrean vocals Deer Tick’s sum was truly greater than its individual parts. The songs themselves, though no one’s really comparing to the output on the first album, worked incredibly well together and sounded like an album of pieces that were written around the same time and in the same vein.
With these two records as my basis, I decided that the forthcoming album The Black Dirt Sessions, fairly or otherwise, would serve as my litmus test for determining whether or not I felt McCauley and friends were ready to take the next step in becoming a perennial force with each record. The alternative of course being that they prove themselves little more than a solid band that never really hits on all cylinders. The first couple of listens to the record provided precisely what I expected to hear from the album; beautiful melodies, beautifully sung with tight instrumentation and lyrics that sound like they come from a source as old as McCauley’s voice sounds, rather than as young as he actually is. A welcomed, new element to the fold is the inclusion and promotion of a heavily reverb laden piano.
The songs themselves again are par for the course; meticulously crafted and loosely produced. There is noticeably less of a full band sound in the album’s first half. Rather, production is sparse with lilting harmonies and a captivating piano. In this sense, the album is almost presented like a true 33 1/3 LP where the two individual sides serve entirely disparate purposes. “The Sad Sun” with its bright imagery of an emotional drive to the Cape (presumably Cape Cod given Deer Tick’s Northeast roots) and breathtaking harmonies highlight a side that seems to hearken back to early Jackson Browne records with his nostalgic approach to folk rock.
And if each side is to represent derivations from different sides of the folk rock spectrum, the flip side seems to cull from the cynical, bone crushing material of Neil Young in the mid ’70s. With shrieking vocals and downright creepy guitar leads serviced by new axe-man Ian O’Neil, side 2 highlights a far more cryptic and rock take with organs effectively replacing the chill pianos on the aforementioned cuts. “Hand in Hand” and “I Will Not Be Myself” lead this charge with an energy that could never seem to be conveyed in this way on previous Deer Tick efforts.
The Black Dirt Sessions likely won’t be proclaimed as an album for the ages. And perhaps the messianic status I am prepared to bestow upon McCauley will have to wait for another year, another record. But for the time being, I find myself thinking the same way I felt upon the release of Born on Flag Day, it’s damn near impossible to find anything wrong with what these guys are doing. The album’s closer perhaps represents Deer Tick’s music the best. An outtake from the first record it hardly sounds out of place here on a record of songs written four years later. “Christ Jesus,” the word of the Lord.
Jackson Browne – The Pretender
Neil Young – Tonight’s the Night
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Lie Down In the Light