If Deer Tick frontman John McCauley wants to build a side career informed largely by the second disc of the Replacement odds ‘n’ sods collection All For Nothing — ya know, the disc with all the b-sides and drunken cover tunes — then I say we let him. Especially if the results are going to be as fun as both 2011’s Middle Brother (with the dudes from Dawes and Delta Spirit) and now Diamond Rugs (with seemingly everyone else). Granted, Deer Tick travels this road as well — I’m thinking of Divine Providence‘s “Let’s All Go to the Bar” — but McCauley’s carousing rabble-rouser persona feels more apropos in these comparatively tossed-off projects. Diamond Rugs may be the work of six lifers — fellow DTer Robbie Crowell, Black Lips’ Ian Saint Pe, Dead Confederate’s Hardy Morris, Six Finger Satellite’s Bryan Dufresne and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin — who brought their own songs to the project, but McCauley casts the longest shadow on the, uh, rug.
Having decamped to Nashville from Deer Tick’s longtime base of operations in Providence, RI, in the past year or so, McCauley has fully embraced barroom-rock poetry, chronicling the genre’s drunks, outcasts and oddballs. The narrator of “Gimme a Beer” is that asshole at the dive bar at two in the afternoon airing his grievances and repeatedly making the titular request, while the punky “Hungover and Horny” provides listeners with yet another updates on the quality of McCauley’s character’s erections — see also Middle Brother’s “Me Me Me” — before complaining to an absentee girlfriend “If you don’t come home, I don’t come at all.”
So yeah, it’s that kind of album; goofy, lewd, armed with some pedal steel and a lively horn section. The abovementioned tunes are all appealingly tossed off, as are Saint Pe’s Black Lips-y “Big God”, “Out on My Own” — which nicks more than a few bars of Ricky Nelson’s 1961 hit “Travelin’ Man” — and the jangly “I Took Note” where McCauley seems genuinely puzzled when he asks “If you love something give it away — What are you supposed to do when you love everything?” Those tunes play to all of Diamond Rugs’ members’ strengths. In the minus column are tunes like “Call Girl Blues”, “Motherland”, and “Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant” that either feel rote — McCauley surely felt he needed a downtempo number called “Call Girl Blues” in his portfolio — plod along, or feel like a bad early ’80s Tom Waits parody (guess which one?).
As enjoyable as Diamond Rugs’ high points are, the album still feels like less than the sum of its parts, which is still not a bad thing for a barroom-stomp side project. Rave reviews of their sets at SXSW this year suggest this band is best served on stage rather than in the studio, but the record does confirm that McCauley is turning into a fine chronicler of America’s left-behinds and malcontents, and the more practice he gets, the better off we’ll all be.