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Reelin’ ’n’ rockin’

Deer Tick runs the gamut
By ANDREA FELDMAN  |  February 6, 2008

Deer Tick + Drag the River | Jake’s Bar & Grille, 373 Richmond St, Providence | February 9 | 9 pm | 401.453.5253
Deer Tick singer John McCauley’s lived-in, whiskey-rough rasp and weather-beaten, hard-luck anthems harken back to the old-school traditions of Nashville, a boozy world of dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music. But McCauley, whose world-weary demeanor can make him seem startlingly older than his 21 years, is too smart a songwriter to settle in comfortably to the care-worn clichés of the honky-tonk: you’ll find no tears-in-beers melodrama or last-call revelations here.
Borrowing a phrase from the late, great Gram Parsons, McCauley prefers to characterize his work as “cosmic Amer¬ican music — a mixture of rock, country, bluegrass, blues and folk that doesn’t suck.” Echoing throughout are the influential sounds of Texan outlaws like Gram, Townes van Zandt, and Roky Erickson — storytellers and nomadic troubadours all. Acknowledging their significance, he adds, “I’m pretty crazy about Townes, Gram, and John Prine. I also love the Beatles, Roy Orbison, Paul Simon, and Buddy Holly. They were all so much themselves [that] it’s kind of weird.”
You could say the same about McCauley. A Providence native, he started making music seriously at age 10 and formed Deer Tick as a solo project out of high school. After going it alone for nearly three years, the group now has a permanent lineup consisting of McCauley on vocals and guitar, Chris Ryan on electric and double bass, and Dennis Ryan (no relation to Chris) on drums and vocals.
McCauley’s songwriting is remarkably assured, enriched by grand themes and sweeping (but by no means impersonal) ambition. Hopelessly romantic at heart, the 14 songs on the group’s debut War Elephant [Feow! Records] are pushed and pulled — often violently — by conflicting emotions. The album’s rough-edged immediacy is even more noteworthy given that McCauley painstakingly recorded the bulk of the album himself, multitracking everything except violin. (“These Old Shoes” and a cover of Anthony Newley’s self-effacing chestnut, “What Kind of Fool Am I?” were done with a pick-up band of like-minded friends, including Nat Baldwin, Brian McOmber of Dirty Projectors, and James Falzone on Wurlitzer organ.)
Restlessly (and effortlessly) veering from rollicking bar-band barnstormers (the rowdy “Spend the Night”) to skewed laments (“Art Isn’t Real [City of Sin]”) to over-the-top cabaret (“Fool”), the album’s overall effect is at once boisterous and lyrical. In McCauley’s world, love starts pure but becomes tainted; faith is perpetually tested and questioned. Desire’s pitched battles are “an eternal testament/To how we are so animalistic,” agony “is a sound,” and the narrator of “Standing At the Threshold” "fall[s] apart from the inside out.”
Given the album’s rambling, almost metaphysical, vulnerability, its title — evocative as it is of epic, violent conflict — seems al¬most incongruous. McCauley explains that it was, at first, “a kind of joke. I just thought it sounded tough. I never thought about it more than that until my friend Travis told me that, according to mythology, the [downward] trunk meant bad luck and misfortune because it was curled under the elephant. Then it all started to make sense in my head —the bad luck elephant and the sad, sappy songs.”
Sappy? Despite the flashes of high-lonesome melancholy, War Elephant is hardly somber. Drawing firmly on country’s longstanding tradition of wry fatalism, McCauley leavens his songs with whoops, hollers, and good ol’ goofball shtick. And on stage, he really lets his inner showman shine.
Providence has proven itself a relatively low-pressure, supportive place for Deer Tick’s continued evolution. “I was afraid of the scene for a while,” he clarifies. “I didn’t fit in too well at first. [But] after touring for a while I came back more confident and a better musician. I started feeling as though I had finally been received by my hometown. Now I love it and love telling people about it.”
The immediate future looks busy for the trio, with work already begun on a new record (or even two) and plans to tour following an ap¬pearance at Austin’s South By Southwest. So does this mean world domination is imminent? “Well,” McCauley tells me, “every time we try to talk world domination we just end up agreeing that we need to join the gym first.”


Related: Practice makes precious, A bug in your ear, Photos: Deer Tick + Jenny Lewis at House of Blues, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Anthony Newley, Buddy Holly, Chris Ryan,  More more >
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