Deer Tick is, at its heart, a rock band that can’t be contained.
The group, who got its start in the mid-2000s in Providence, R.I. as the semi-solo project of singer-songwriter John McCauley, takes that mantra to heart, but not necessarily in the ways you expect. That doesn’t just mean a ragged-but-right approach to garage rock rave-ups and Stones-indebted swagger, but also ebullient melodies and heart-felt lyricism. It means digging deep into country and blues as well as punk and soul, swinging for the drunken and droll sing-alongs and rendering the most tender and intimate of character studies. And it means developing a rep behind the roar of an electric guitar but spending just as much time behind the piano or in mid-tempo repose, with Beatles-esque melodies to match.
Deer Tick had all of these impulses from the start, but it took some time for them to all come into focus, almost like the lineup itself, which took until around 2010 to really solidify. Now, five albums in and fresh off a four-year semi-hiatus, the group finally captures the full breadth of what makes them tick with a new self-titled double album that neatly cleaves their quieter and louder personas.
“We started working on this record a couple of years ago and were still considering what we wanted to do and went in to demo a few of the songs in Nashville,” recalls guitarist Ian O’Neill, who has been in Deer Tick since 2009. “Basically, we kind of already decided to split the sound up in two different entities just to see how it worked out. It wasn’t about giving more material to the audience; it was more the plan because we really wanted to focus on the two different types of music that we tend to play.”
The effect of splitting the two volumes up crystallizes how fully the band can embrace either side of their personality, with the gruffness of McCauley’s voice fully giving way in the gorgeous acoustic opener “Sea of Clouds” on Deer Tick Volume 1. “Tell me how you live so easily” he sings, stretching out each syllable with rich conviction as an angelic choir quietly backs him up and the band does their best Byrds impression. The tune is just one of a half-dozen ruminative folk-rock tunes here, although the band’s irascible personality shines even more here, with the droll country ramble of “Card House” and “Cocktail,” the latter of which sees the famously hard-partying frontman reflect with humor on his tumultuous relationship with alcohol.
That sense of light humor and cocksure spirit would seem more at home on the more raved-up Volume 2, but the band has always been adept at incorporating its spirit in either mode it operates in.
“I think it’s kind of funny is that rock ‘n’ roll in general gets branded as some kind of delinquent music, something for the youth,” muses O’Neill. “It’s not untrue in terms of the energy you need to dispel to perform it on a night-to-night basis — that might be why people have criticisms of the Rolling Stones or other old guys still doing it. I don’t think it’s fair to say that one’s more mature than the other because a lot of the lyrical content on the louder record might even be more adult. They are pretty neck-in-neck, but I could certainly see why the history of rock ‘n’ roll would give you that impression.”
True to that impulse, the driving Crazy Horse-ish advance single from Vol. 2, “Jumpstarting,” is a Replacements-esque plea that features such gripping toss-offs as “seems to me like you’re feeling so sorry/ Like a string of rosary beads/ Tucked away and be forgotten/ Now be your beliefs” — it’s as if they’re folding the spirit of Townes Van Zandt into their rowdy barroom persona.
And while that sort of hard-spun lyricism was part of the band from the beginning, it’s hard not to sense an increased maturity on both records, even alongside their trademark snark.
“We’re reaching our thirties, we’re all married now, so the material we’re singing about will probably reflect that,” admits O’Neill, while noting that doesn’t really limit the subject matter. “There’s all sorts of topics that can still come up — politics, alcohol, drugs, what have you.”
More than anything, the double album and O’Neill’s words suggest that Deer Tick has fully embraced their identity, escaping whatever tags and false starts that may have pervaded their rocky, dual personality approach early in their career.
“We’re at a point now where we’ve been making music so long that I think the music will speak for itself, that it will reach whoever it reaches, whoever wants to hear it, and whoever we can get it out to, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of our humor,” he concludes.
“That’s how we’re gonna be able to keep doing this, is to be ourselves.”