ON THE ROCKS Christopher Dale Ryan, McCauley, Tobiassen, and Dennis Michael Ryan.
Heady days for Deer Tick.
Just a few months back, Rolling Stone tastemaker David Fricke labeled the Providence quartet the breakout act of the South by Southwest music festival.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has declared his fandom twice — in a backstage interview with Rachael Ray that wound up on the Web and again during a sit-down chat with the band for BriTunes, his unfortunately named online music segment.
Syndicated National Public Radio show World Café is featuring the band this week. And Deer Tick just kicked off a national tour in support of its soon-to-be-released second album, Born On Flag Day.
"I'm really excited," said guitarist and frontman John Joseph McCauley III. "Things are going to change when this album drops."
But if Deer Tick is a band on the brink, the trappings of success still seem something distant.
The foursome is touring in a small, hollowed-out school bus with makeshift sleeping quarters. The band doesn't have health insurance. And headquarters for Rhode Island's Next Big Thing is a crappy, half-empty rental just off Broadway.
DARKNESS AND LIGHT
Saluting Born on Flag Day
By Chris Conti
Just five years out of high school, Deer Tick bandleader John McCauley III is far too young to be dishing out such scorned and lovelorn, whiskey-sopped couplets like he does, yet with Born On Flag Day (Partisan Records), McCauley has mastered the art of endearing the broken man to his listeners, less than two years after his homemade (and recently re-released) one-man debut War Elephant displayed his undeniable charisma and talents. Yet a Pitchfork.com review of War Elephant referred to McCauley as "a lithe songwriter with a black lung and a bad liver" and dismissed the debut as "languid alt-country arrangements." It was raw and ragged, but it's hard to knock cuts such as "Baltimore Blues No.1," "Christ Jesus," and "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)." McCauley takes full advantage of his seemingly shredded voicebox; the raspy, nasal gurgle of Tom Waits and the stoned southern drawl of Tom Petty work as a complementary combination while gracefully stumbling toward the darkness on the stripped-down harmonica gem "Smith Hill" into "Song About a Man," two of the more stirring moments on Flag Day. "Little White Lies" is a front-porch, bluesy lullaby, and the delicate strumming on "Houston, TX" coasts along like the feel-good heartbreaker "Diamond Rings 2007" on War Elephant. Flag Day benefits from a full ensemble, with the quartet ably veering from the '60s surf-rock twang (and stinging fretboard work) of "Straight Into a Storm" to the closing, sad-sack ballad "Stung." But it's the clanging and jangly —and irrefutably addictive — album opener "Easy" that easily steals the show. The opening minute of feedback and noodling give way to a foot-stomping gallop of a riff coolly blown open during the chorus. McCauley is even more entertaining and engaging while losing it during the final 30 seconds. "You were never there," he seethes over and over like a shitfaced, jilted lover, while drummer Dennis Ryan keeps pace with his endearing lunacy.
The minimalist digs owe something to McCauley's recent arrival: the raspy voiced, pack-a-day songwriter has only just returned to his native Providence after living, for a few months, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And he's got some unpacking to do.
But the bachelor-pad arrangements speak, more broadly, to the band's youth. McCauley and housemate Christopher Dale Ryan, who plays bass, are both 23. Guitarist Andrew Grant Tobiassen and drummer Dennis Michael Ryan, Chris's half-brother, are 20. And they act like it.
They drink. Fret over girlfriends' pregnancy scares. And they're more than a little goofy: it's hard to shake the feeling, at a Deer Tick show, that you're watching a giddy high school act playing its biggest venue to date.
And that's what makes the band's music so startling.
Deer Tick's work, if occasionally derivative and oft-marked by youthful obsessions with drink and romantic misery, is remarkable for its fullness and swagger: McCauley's voice is strong and immediate, his lyrics clever and even poetic.
The songs on debut album War Elephant and Flag Day have the scratchy depth of an artist who has lived longer and harder than anyone in Deer Tick.
And the mustachioed, tattooed McCauley pulls it off — most of the time, anyway — with a heavy dose of charisma, a touch of mystery, and a disarming penchant for confident self-mockery.
Standing before a crowd of some 2000 at Boston's House of Blues last week, as the band opened for Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, McCauley declared that Flag Day is "one of the best records ever made.
"Right up there," he said, "with Shaq Diesel by Shaquille O'Neal."
McCauley grew up on Smith Hill, a bit of an outsider.
"I didn't really have a great time in high school," he said. "I was doing a lot more drugs than work. Some 14-year-olds do that."