Deer Tick’s debut release War Elephant on Feow Records is hard to forget. The melodies are countrified confessionals reflecting the lineage of legendary folk, alt country, grunge and blues. War Elephant respectively pays homage to the styles and songwriting of yesteryear; Nirvana, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and in the vein of Tom Petty, Bright Eyes (alt country) Two Gallants, to name a few.
The songs feature the stellar songwriting and vocals of John McCauley. With lyrics worth remembering concerning unreciprocated love, romantic notions, self-reflection, self-doubt and religious reference that bridge a broader discourse. In the songs “Not So Dense”, / now the kids are making models of god in papier mache / and “Christ Jesus”, / its your face I don’t see / he opens the discussion.
McCauley’s worn weathered tobacco laden voice blends in perfect tandem with his smart lyrical notations. The tone, rawness and delivery likened to Kurt Cobain. His words defy his age, and are indicative of an old soul.
The quality of Deer Tick's musicianship gives the songs tang and a homespun sound of familiarity. Strongly melding melody driven finger picking on acoustic guitar, throwback electric (John McCauley), drum brushed snare shuffle and clanging cymbals (Dennis Ryan), dramatic double bass (Chris Ryan) and the violin for romantic and aggressive treatments (Sine Jensen).
Opening with the beautiful “Ashamed” a classic folk ballad that conjures social commentary; / the eternal testament to how your so animalistic / and / you should have seen how the arches tumbled / they are golden no more / the beguiling chorus rise in angelic contrast as they join McCauley singing / oh oh oh / oh oh oh / oh oh / what a crying shame / what we became /.
The full jug band glory and a two-step rhythm in the songs “Art Isn’t Real (City Of Sin)", “Diamond Rings 2007” and “These Old Shoes” bring the melody to fruition. Making the upbeat tempo of songs about unrequited love a welcome dichotomy. He declares his lovelorn circumstances inventively… / I know of a city of sin / and that’s the place I want to see you in / romancing, go back to the beginning / and / I’ll stay the whole night through / and I’ll turn from black to blue / I’m choking after you /. “Standing in the threshold” comes on like a grunge storm, building intensity with the bass and electric guitar and plowing through the songs entirety. / you and me / created something special / oh you and me / oh we’re standing at the threshold /. The anguished screams and strained vocal provoke the finality / I fall apart from the inside out / and die…..
“Nevada” is a soft bitter sweet love declaration as violin heart strings accompany McCauley’s voice imploring his love to / stay here and wander beside me / and ending on a sour note. / I spill my gut / if I had your trust / oh, believe me but you leave me crushed /. The haunting “Christ Jesus” is forbidding. The bass, crashing cymbals and McCauley’s impassioned voice are equally pronounced creating a jolting resonance.
McCauley shows off his phrasing abilities in a campy cover of an old standard “What Kind Of Fool Am I”. Beginning with a clank snare and cymbal that leads into a Bossa Nova arrangement. It emphasizes the sad but comedic self-deprecating lyrics. / What kind of clown am I / what do I know of life /. The song ends on an optimistic note cleverly kicking in piano and violins to bring home the ultimate sappy true romantic within. Appropriately closing War Elephant with a hoot.
With not one misstep, all 14 tracks on War Elephant display their influences proudly and lovingly. It is a music assemblage of caliber and a rewarding listening experience.