Deer Tick - Vol. 1 & Vol. 2

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2017-09-15

In September of 1988, I had the unfortunate experience of attending what has to be one of the worst “music festivals” ever (note: I was not in attendance at the refugee tent adorned and grilled cheese fueled Fyre Festival earlier this year). The one I did attend took place in Dallas in the inverted funnel of the since demolished Texas Stadium. The design of the stadium with a partially open roof served mainly to trap in the brutal Texas heat while rain squalls from a recently dissipated hurricane poured down on the crowd on the field. I had upper level seats under the roof in the trapped heat and humidity bubble that had settled in there – a little rain would have been welcome. For the time, the lineup that included Ziggy Marley, Iggy Pop, Guns N’ Roses, and INXS looked good on paper I guess. This was also in the era before multi-stage events where you got to sit in your seat for an hour between sets. I believe INXS was to be the headliner, but the crowd was basically there to see Guns N’ Roses who had burst on the scene the year before. You can look it up if you don’t believe me, but the band today describes it as the worst show they ever played – and that is probably a pretty high bar to meet. A set list I recently saw claims they played seven songs, but I think that’s exaggerated. Maybe they tried to start seven different songs, but not sure they played any all the way through. A severely drunk Axl Rose proceeded to berate the crowd and make some indelicate comments about Dallas women as an added bonus before being unceremoniously escorted off the stage. John J. McCauley of Deer Tick was two years old when this musical disaster took place, so I have to assume he is singing about a different “Shitty Music Festival” near the end of Deer Tick Vol. 2, but I would put mine up against most.

Four years on from their last release, Deer Tick has uncorked two separate but simultaneously released albums that rival anything in their prior catalog. Simply titled Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Deer Tick Vol. 2 they are quiet and loud, respectively. The band (who I recently saw at a very much un-shitty music festival – High Water Festival in Charleston, SC), has always straddled the line between acoustic Americana and a more raucous bar band approach. What better way to deal with a split personality than to acknowledge them both and separate the output. Undoubtedly there was a way to let these personalities coexist, but given the quality and quantity of what is delivered here this is a totally acceptable approach. As a one-two punch it certainly rivals the simultaneous output of other better known artists such as the aforementioned Guns N’ Roses, Tom Waits, Prince or Bruce Springsteen. If you have trouble remembering which album is which here, look no further than the frames of the Flemish-style still life paintings on the cover – the red ketchup frame encasing a sweet and savory record, with the yellow mustard frame encasing the spicier one. Given the lack otherwise of a title, maybe the ketchup and mustard labels will stick.

The ten-track Vol. 1, showcases the folkier side of the band and many of the songs would fit alongside of their best work so far. Disillusionment is a recurring theme, but the variety of the instrumentation throughout keeps things from getting morose.  You can feel the warmth of the instruments straight from the start on ‘Sea of Clouds’ which musically wouldn’t sound out of place on Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992, album. McCauley comes off here with his most craggy sounding vocal and tells tales of broken hearts and a broken society, blending the two together asking when his lost love will “come off of her sea of clouds” with her living in the past while his older self realizes “we’ve all just settled for a lie.” This song pushes the boundary of the “quieter” record with Dennis Ryan pounding the drums while McCauley’s voice is a controlled scream at the chorus. Honestly, the first few songs just get stronger as each one is reeled off. ‘Card House’ continues the moodiness of the album – with threats of tearing down card houses and running ships aground, by McCauley’s own hand. The loose sing-a-long chorus is a highlight and when the lyric says “once upon a time we had lightning in a bottle” only two songs in, I already had a feel they had captured it again.

My favorite song of Vol. 1 has to be ‘Doomed from the Start’ (another cheerily titled track!) that continues the ramshackle vibe with a toe-tapping rhythm and confidently sung vocals. In spite of the lively melodies on many of the songs, the lyrics mainly return to the theme of frustration and always getting burned with this song pointing to “all the people that want to claim blood, they can sweep it under their rug” as if we have no power to change the direction of what is set in motion and the cynical view of the next song proclaiming that “hope is big, but they’re always gonna win” over a Dawes like piano driven melody. Another beautifully damaged ballad ‘Limp Right Back’ has a whispered Tweedy like vocal with a jazzy outro. The comic relief of Vol. 1 comes in the form of a paean to his first love, drinking all day long – with ‘Cocktail’ sounding like a long lost south of the border Doug Sahm shuffle. I had a few cocktails myself at the High Water festival, but fortunately stopped short of the proclamation here that “the only way out my friend is falling down.” Other members take lead vocals on a few tracks including the other lighter themed song, ‘Me and My Man’. If this were the full content of Deer Tick’s latest output, their fans would be more than happy – it’s just a very solid and musically varied set of songs, almost any of which would fit well into their live show. But wait there’s more…

Vol. 2 (the mustard framed album) is described by the band as exploring their punk roots. Punk may be pushing it a bit, with ‘It’s a Whale’ being the scariest sounding thing here with McCauley as his snottiest and most abrasive whining about “heading nowhere with the last of my kind.” It’s certainly enough to frighten children and small dogs, but most of the songs are more rave up style bar band songs like you would hear from The Bottle Rockets or even Tom Petty and that’s frankly welcome. The album starts with the slow burn power of ‘Don’t Hurt’, with McCauley back to the sense of being “not entitled to anything I feel” over a wall of guitar feedback. Similar to ‘Doomed from the Start’, the early highlight of Vol. 2, has to be ‘Jumpstarting’ that kicks into high gear right from the start with McCauley again at his most confident shouting out the choruses of “if they really don’t know, if they really don’t care.” With less serious content overall than Vol. 1, there are other odes to drug and drink in the form of the Petty-esqe ‘Look How Clean I Am’ and the rollicking ‘Tiny Fortunes’ spent on “powder and pills.” The earlier referenced ‘Shitty Music Festival’ or ‘S.M.F.’ is an amped up ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ that contains the most blistering solo and posits the old adage: “it sounds great when you’re stoned”. The album ends with a smoky, late night instrumental in honor of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting and then a boogie driven tribute to the status quo, ‘Mr. Nothing Gets Better’.

These are both really solid albums that should stand up over time as some of the band’s best work. If I had to give a nod it would probably be to Vol. 1 given the variety of styles and tighter theme, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the livelier tunes on the latter record. You would do well to pick both of these up and listen to them instead of attending a subpar music fest, trust me I was there.            

 

 

 

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