Review by j. poet
John McCauley, AKA Deer Tick, has been on a non-stop tour since graduating from high school in 2004. He often performs without amplification, delivering tunes with just his voice and guitar, an experience that gives his vocals the primal power of a turn of the (last) century mountain balladeer. McCauley's a singer/songwriter with finely crafted literary lyrics married to folkie melodies that sport influences from rock, blues, country and pop, as evidenced by his cover of Anthony Newley's "What Kind of Fool Am I?". McCauley transforms the tune into a country waltz, straining to reach the high notes, replacing Newley's measured regret with desperation and agony, although the mood is broken by a goofy, loping instrumental bridge just before the last two verses. The rest of the album, originals penned by McCauley, is more straightforward - tunes about lost love, loneliness and heartache delivered simply, highlighting McCauley's emotionally charged, unadorned vocals. "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" is a country song that balances a playful backing track with a lyric full of insecurity and self-doubt, a lover begging for another chance he knows will probably never come. On "Nevada" the singer is howling at the moon, once more wondering why the object of his affection has no use for him. McCauley's subtle use of pedal steel adds to the song's desolate feeling. "Not So Dense" is a mournful, funereal meditation on a world going mad; the grinding backing track and McCauley's shrieking vocals paint a bleak portrait of the dark side of modern life. "Sink or Swim" looks at the life of a troubadour and wonders if singing a song can really make a difference as we face the loneliness and alienation in the mirror. But all is not grim. "Spend the Night" shows McCauley brighter side. It's a clanging country tune with a simple lyric that sounds like a jolt of laughing gas coming near the end of an album that's almost unremittingly forlorn. And while "Diamond Rings 2007" is blue, it's crafted like a commercial country song, with a strong lyric and a tune that weaves itself into your brain after a single listen. McCauley's raw, quavering vocals pack a bracing emotional punch. The album's cheerless aura won't please everyone, but kindred wounded souls will be glad to take hold of its tattered hand.
There is plenty about Deer Tick's debut album, War Elephant, to suggest that frontman John McCauley has seen more than his 21 birthdays. The gruff pipes, languid alt-country arrangements, and tears-in-his-beers lyrics-- "Maybe I'll see better days/ But I'm not so sure I will," just two songs into his debut album-- all point towards a sagely source. Consider that McCauley has spent the previous two years touring, has collaborated with Jason Anderson and Jana Hunter, and now has his own band; it's tough to fathom just what makes him unsure of better days. This isn't to needlessly drag Deer Tick into the endless pissing contest that is authenticity in country music, just to note that McCauley is a bit of an old hound, a lithe songwriter with a black lung and a bad liver. On War Elephant, he sets his old ways against a meld of country and alt-rock signifiers, one appropriate for his age but only occasionally a fit for his songwriting.
Though ostensibly an alt-country act, no amount of Telecaster bends or fiddle breaks are going to disguise Deer Tick's indie-rock core: McCauley, in both composition and performance, owes more to the Shins, Modest Mouse, and early Bright Eyes than he does even to halfway country acts like Uncle Tupelo. Overdrive pedals get stomped and larynxes strained, and War Elephant is probably the better for it: when McCauley crushes too hard on traditional tunes-- "Spend the Night" mimics Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin'"-- he acquires an unpleasant kid brother-ness. McCauley works best in abbreviated stretches, and about half of War Elephant stays under the three-minute mark. His voice is a nasal, corroded squeak that finds a pleasant middle ground between gargling water and Eric Bachmann on the heels of a good melody.
This happens frequently enough throughout the first half of the album. The opening trio of "Ashamed", "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)", and "Standing at the Threshold" roll amicably, McCauley's angst still couched in gallows humor and clever phrasing. "There's gotta be some old recipe/ 'Cause I gotta get drunk I gotta forget about some things", he sings jauntily on "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)". "These Old Shoes" is sort of adorable, marrying all manner of dilapidated transports-- trains, cars, kicks-- to yelping promises, a shuffling snare beat, and buoyant electric piano. "Dirty Dishes" and "Long Time" are at worst grungy heartbreaks worthy of Wednesday night Fox teen-dramas. Unfortunately, McCauley too often abandons his slim songcraft in favor of bloated alt-rockisms and hammy genre exercises. "Sink or Swim" and, most egregiously, "Christ Jesus" plod on towards anguished, big-rock finishes, and McCauley has neither the fire nor the legs to carry them.
"What Kind of Fool Am I" closes War Elephant sourly, a paean to 1950s vocal balladry whose piercing string arrangement can't mask McCauley's ruinous Tony Bennett impression. It's a fitting end, one that showcases McCauley's pining for experience he doesn't have into the teeth of a modern musical lineage, a contrast that takes more than his cask-aged lyrics to reconcile. The resultant head-butting makes it pretty easy to figure what kind of fool McCauley is: a young one, of course.
-Andrew Gaerig, October 24, 2007