Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: Deer Tick - Born on Flag Day (* * * 1/2)

A couple years ago, John J. McCauley III was the sole voice behind alt-folk band Deer Tick, recording and releasing the band's first record, War Elephant, almost entirely by himself. He wrote the music and played all the instruments; not completely uncommon, but a remarkable feat considering the quality of his gravelly folk-rock tunes. Blatantly influenced by a slew of classic folk musicians, McCauley's debut is nevertheless engaging and compelling, introducing us to a young man with a world-weary voice and downtrodden spirit that belies his age at the time. Now, with the release of Deer Tick's second album, Born on Flag Day, McCauley records with a full band that includes Andy Tobiassen and Dennis and Chris Ryan. This fleshed out incarnation of Deer Tick produce ten songs that continue the emotional and personal writing style so prominent on McCauley's debut, but with a fuller, more realized sound.

Throughout the record, McCauley seeks to take advantage of the talents of his band-mates, which both helps and occasionally hampers the album's songs. On cuts like the earnest opener and first single "Easy" as well as the guitar-heavy "Straight Into a Storm," the busier sound works to the group's advantage, strengthening stories of broken hearts and cold nights with backing vocals and sharp rhythms. On a few tracks, however, the additional noise simply detracts from the proceedings, like the over-busy chorus of "Smith Hill," which just piles on the instrumentation in an unnecessarily noisy climax. There are still a few moments of sparse calm on Flag Day, like the thoughtful “Song About a Man,” which recall the simplicity of much of Deer Tick’s debut. However, as enjoyable as the more familiar cuts are, the noisier and more erratic songs can seem like a step in the right direction for McCauley and company, even if the material doesn’t impress as consistently as on his debut.

The songwriting on Flag Day is about on par with McCauley’s earlier material, which is to say generally strong but not without pretense when penning material that would seem to require wisdom beyond that of a man his age. A little older, and perhaps wiser, he sounds more confident and honest this time around, and tracks like “Houston, TX” and “Easy” rank with McCauley's best work. Another pleasant and convincing development manifests on “Friday XIII,” an old-school western duet with Liz Isenberg, whose sweet vocal seems oddly appropriate paired with McCauley’s rough yowl. The collaboration works well enough to serve as more than just a novelty, making for one of the album’s more memorable tunes.

Born On Flag Day
sees a band with growing pains, cautiously feeling out new territory while keeping one foot firmly in the past. And that’s not entirely meant as a criticism; the ten tracks actually coalesce quite well, into a solid forty minutes of indie Americana. But it seems obvious, to me at least, that the boys still have a ways to go before they create the kind of record they seem capable of producing. Fortunately, the material here confirms that Deer Tick is a band determined to improve, and one with no shortage of ideas on how to do just that.

Last Word: A necessary if slightly awkward move in the right direction for an ambitious young band with plenty of time to fulfill the potential they've already shown.

Download: Easy (MP3)