John McCauley, the mastermind behind Rhode Island’s Deer Tick, always sounds like he’s straining himself. The parts he gives himself to sing rarely breach the vocal range of the shower-singing average Joe, and yet, every word he’s ever put to tape comes through my speakers like sex groans through a desk fan. I’d understand if that were just the way his voice was, but the heroic steadiness of his grungy whine makes it sound like he’s working to get there. It’s not a dealbreaker, but either you like it, or you don’t.
In fact, there’s a lot of either-you-like-it-or-you-don’t on Deer Tick’s latest, The Black Dirt Sessions. There’s a lot of it in Deer Tick, period. They approach Americana with the attitude of historians, or curators, but not exactly artists, or even entertainers, and as a consequence there’s very little in their work that might convert the unconverted. The main goal here appears to be perfecting an electric blend of country and folk, and that they do. Steel guitars and reverb, walking basslines, bluegrass sirens and answers at the bottom of whiskey bottles — it’s a pitch-perfect retread of distinctly American 20th-century music.
Except for that voice. McCauley accentuates it as if ordered by the president of indie rock to manufacture quirks out of thin air. While hearing an unpretty warble singing the blues is far preferable to most pitch-corrected neo-Nashville nonsense, a lack of dynamism hurts McCauley. It’s plain to see that he listens to tons of Neil Young, the godfather of idiosyncratic country singing, so why he hasn’t picked up any of Shakey’s volatility and range is anyone’s guess.
It’s too bad, because a lot of The Black Dirt Sessions, like War Elephant and Born on Flag Day before it, is pretty good. This young band has an impeccable sense of both tone and songcraft, and, most importantly, the ability to balance between the two. As a result, a rootsy melancholy gravitates the hooks of gems like “I Will Not Be Myself”, “The Sad Sun”, and “Twenty Miles” without weighing those songs down.
The words, meanwhile, are largely an after-thought; except for a handful of canny phrases (my favorite: “I think of your smile / I’m in love with your teeth”), McCauley is an unremarkable lyricist. His hackneyed romances resemble the work of any number of cowboy troubadours so closely that they seem to exist only to do so. “Christ Jesus”, for example, is less Kris Kristofferson than Norman Greenbaum: McCauley invokes not Jesus the Son of Man, but Jesus the 20th century cultural touchstone. Like his music, McCauley’s lyrics choose mood over poignancy. The Black Dirt Sessions is exactly what it wants to be: album rock for waking up cotton-mouthed in the back of a pick-up truck.
But that voice! That corroded croon somehow hints that Deer Tick has higher ambitions than it ever achieves. A track like “Goodbye, Dear Friend” is masterfully evocative — that is, until its moonshine-thin tale of grief gets underway, at which point it settles comfortably into being just another saloon ballad, for people who like that sort of thing. It becomes disappointing, and then frustrating, for people like me who like that sort of thing, but like being surprised even more. I’m not suggesting that they adopt hyper-literacy and become another Mountain Goats, and I’m not suggesting that they abandon their sound, either. I’m suggesting that John McCauley stop straining so hard to give us what he thinks we want, and give us instead, to paraphrase an old professor of mine, what we didn’t realize we wanted. He and his band are far too talented for us to settle for anything less.