Deer Tick’s John McCauley sounds young, and with good reason—the kid just turned 21 this year. He’s got a slightly high-pitched voice, like Jeff Mangum with a bit more punk snarl. And yet, McCauley also has the rasp of a weathered, aging troubadour, the kind of voice that belongs to the songwriter who’s walked a weary road and seen the darkness in man. Much like Joanna Newsom, only with more grit, piss and vinegar, McCauley sounds like both the old and the young, simultaneously, which lends his debut full-length release War Elephant the benefit of sounding mature and fresh, simultaneously.
On the surface, there is nothing particularly unusual about McCauley’s music, other than his idiosyncratic throat, of course. He plays, for lack of a better term, “alt-country,” the 14 songs on War Elephant marked by his intricate acoustic guitar plucking and the alternating moods of dust-kicking fun and somber reflection. This description alone might sum up, more or less, what McCauley does, but doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the beauty and concise complexity of each song. Leadoff track “Ashamed” has a gentle but upbeat melody, akin to Elliott Smith’s Kill Rock Stars releases, yet it’s the opening line, which could only be delivered from McCauley’s distinctive pipes, that sets the tone for the rest of the album—”I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet/ but I am broken and torn with halos at my feet.”
The first instance of McCauley’s rock urges taking over occurs in “Standing At the Threshold,” a dark, yet noisily beautiful highlight with imagery of being smothered in images of death, and hallelujahs carved into one’s chest. “Dirty Dishes” is gorgeous and simple, with verses both fantastical and heartbreaking: “and you cried all night till you created a stream/ and it flows forever, it’s made of dreams/ that didn’t come true and I’m sorry but there’s nothing more that I can do.” The epic “Baltimore Blues No. 1” has a classic rock bluesiness, a human country & western touch, and the kind of darkness that only the most legendary of each has been able to perfectly capture. McCauley sings from the perspective of a morally gray protagonist, confessing “No doubt I’d sell you all out/ for a pocket full of silver and gold.” Following a similarly shadowy path, the anxiously shuffling “These Old Shoes” finds some humor in its narrator’s tale of determination (“she said `get off my train you dirty hobo’/ I tried to explain, but it was a no-go.”).
“Kids are making models of God out of papier-mâché” in the anguished “Not So Dense,” and “Spend the Night” is something almost entirely opposite, a joyful and upbeat love song that’s simultaneously Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'” and Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime.” Here, the record takes a very unexpected turn, stomping with a smile on the front porch, rather than drinking in a dusty corner, but like I said, War Elephant displays an astonishing level of complexity and lyrical depth in spite of its melodically simple facade. Maybe McCauley’s an older soul than he lets on.
16 Horsepower – Sackcloth & Ashes
Castanets – Cathedral
Okkervil River – Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.