Sending in the clowns

Deer Tick’s whiskey-guzzling theater
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  October 31, 2007
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GET THE MAN A DRINK: Deer Tick's John McCauley.

Deer Tick | with Castanets + Cursillistas | at SPACE Gallery, in Portland | 8:30 pm Nov 7 | $7 | 207.828.5600
It sounds like John McCauley hasn’t had a sip of water in months. The singer’s caustic voice stinks of whiskey and cigarette smoke, as do his lyrics, but his ripe age (21) and sharp wit makes that dry wail more of an exciting stunt than the product of decades of hard luck and loneliness.

Likewise, his band Deer Tick’s debut album, the excellent War Elephant (Feow), is more the work of a student of the Great American Alcoholic’s Honky-Tonk Songbook than of a road-worn old pro. His cries — “I know a city of sin/And that’s the place that I want to meet you in,” “I gotta get drunk/I gotta forget about some things” — have probably been echoed verbatim for generations, but it hardly matters: Deer Tick are elevating a form that scarcely exists anymore.

Alt-country lost a lot of its twang when genre giants Wilco released their first experimental pop album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in 2002, an event that helped usher in a continuing influx of earnest, alternative folk acts that have stolen the hearts of Americana fans.

Most of the genre’s current heroes are erratic (Ryan Adams) or not that popular (Magnolia Electric Co.’s Jason Molina), but regardless they lack the edge and brute force that “alt-” is supposed to represent.

War Elephant, though, wears its suffering like a badge of honor, with pride and self-awareness. Forlorn opener “Ashamed” takes familiar country tropes (fatalistic lamenting, self-deprecation) and emboldens them with wry sarcasm (“I could’ve been an angel/But I’m too dumb to speak”). McCauley goes so far as to blame his parched moan on a lost love, singing “Murdered my throat screaming bloody all night,” a line that highlights his use of unusual cadence and harsh imagery. Each tactic gives soul and authenticity to a song you might mistake as theater.

Despite the violence of McCauley’s voice, the album keeps a pretty easygoing pace, alternating between minor-key ballads and mellow rockers. The band don’t waste time or instruments but mix up their arrangements well; “Nevada” is an affecting guitar and drum duet that sounds suitably spare and depressed until a brief fiddle refrain tells you that, no, it’s actually fucking tragic. “These Old Shoes” pairs organ and Spanish guitar licks to add some melodrama to the rollicking, desperate chase McCauley portrays.

WarElephant’s only flub is a lazy mixing decision or two; “Not so Dense” is meant to be the album’s one true barnburner, but the clatter of cymbals in its chorus obscures the punishing lead guitar that drives the song.

McCauley’s lyrics, knowing and memorable throughout, completely inhabit his lonely drunkard’s persona, and his cynical maxims (“for not a journey/but a circus are our lives,” “an eternal testament to how we are so animalistic”) are hard-won in the face of his detailed stories.

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