Story Songs and Singalongs 

Deer Tick's second album channels country/classic rock roots

Never has a carload of Deer Ticks sounded so good.

Photo by Kendall Pavan

Never has a carload of Deer Ticks sounded so good.

"No, no I'm up now," John Joseph McCauley yawned, his raspy baritone even more sandpapery than usual. In a tour van barreling down a highway somewhere between Maryland and Delaware, Deer Tick's recently-23-year-old lead singer let out a series of monosyllabic retorts as he shook off his sleepy haze. Though this hard-working, hard-partying Providence, R.I., country/folk musician is surely no stranger to lifting his head mid-afternoon, on this particular occasion, four days into a two month-long tour, he was fighting off a nasty-sounding cold.

When McCauley and crew blew through town last October for a show at the Visual Arts Collective, the band had just freshly solidified their lineup. Though the project began in late 2004 as a drum and guitar twosome, it has swollen and deflated during the last five years before finally reaching a four-member equilibrium--McCauley on guitar and vox, Dennis Michael Ryan on drums, half-brother Christopher Dale Ryan on electric and upright bass, and Andrew Grant Tobiassen on guitar and backup vocals. McCauley recorded Deer Tick's first album, War Elephant, sans band in 2007 and it was subsequently re-released in 2008 on the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Partisan Records. Though Deer Tick's forthcoming June 23 release Born on Flag Day is technically their second album, it feels more like the group's collaborative debut.

"I just wanted, really, to make it kick more ass than the last one," explained McCauley.

And for a relatively new band, ass-kicking expectations are high. Recently, Deer Tick was named the No. 1 act to claw through the chaos at SXSW 2009 by Rolling Stone, and NBC newscaster Brian Williams selected them to appear on his Web-only show, BriTunes. Add to that tour dates opening for indie-folk darling Jenny Lewis, and the bright glint of pending fame seems to refract off Deer Tick's aviators and light the group's path. But for those accustomed to War Elephant's more paired-down, echoey tunes, like "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)," Born on Flag Day veers off in a different direction.

"Sonically, I just wanted it to sound bigger ... I had all the songs written, I just didn't know which ones I wanted to record," said McCauley. "We were in the studio for 20 days. The first week was kind of unproductive, and everybody kind of freaked out."

But freak-outs aside, the finished product is a testament to the band's collective musicality--raw country/classic rock standards punctuated by skilled guitar riffs and catchy arrangements. Born on Flag Day sounds like it pulled itself off a dusty dance hall floor, finger-combed its mustache and saddled its faded 501's back onto the bar stool for another round. The album's 10 songs ring with the kind of lost love and broken expectations that have kept Willie Nelson's beer mug full for the last half century.

"This album is definitely more story songs than War Elephant," said McCauley. "Some of the songs I wrote from personal experience, and some of them I wrote just as an exercise to try and put myself in someone else's shoes."

But even when McCauley wails, "I could drink myself to death tonight / or I could stand and give a toast / Of those who made it out alive / it's you I miss the most" in the song "Smith Hill," his whiskey-marinated croak scarcely belies his brief 23 years.

"It's kind of a funny process," said McCauley. "For every song like 'Smith Hill' that I write, I write 25 songs that I think suck."

Another one of the album's more standout songs, "Friday XIII," begins with a dark, quick-tongued intro reminiscent of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." But when the chorus hits, collaborator Liz Isenberg's soothing lilt breaks through McCauley's rasp to harmonize with him, singing, "Come on baby won't you feel alright / It feels like forever since I've been warm at night / So let's get back to / all that was fair and just / Oh, won't you please / love me / again." Though Born on Flag Day's story ballads lend the album a more removed quality than the generally more personal War Elephant, the album still shakes with all the boot-stomping energy of the band's live sets.

"There's nothing I hate more than going to a show and watching a band stand and play and sound exactly like they sound on their record," noted McCauley. "It's a live show, it should sound and feel like a live show."

Even if McCauley is still battling a cold when he takes the stage at Neurolux on Saturday, June 20, Deer Tick's live set is guaranteed to be an ass-shaking, Coors-drenched spectacle. Before we let McCauley return to his nap, we asked him one last question--where, after extensive touring and after parties, did he consider to be the true City of Sin? McCauley paused for a moment, then chuckled, "It could be anywhere. It could be Boise. You never know."

Saturday, June 20, 4 p.m., FREE, Record Exchange, 1105 W. Idaho St., 208-344-8010. With Radio Moscow and Dawes, 8 p.m., $8 adv., $10 door, Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., 208-343-0886. For more information, visit neurolux.com.

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