Indubitably, Deer Tick‘s first album, War Elephant, was a promising and solid start for the band. The biggest complaint was a silly one, being John McCauley’s gin-soaked, distinct voice. It’s silly because singers need to have at least something unique and identifiable to them and in many ways, his singing was an homage to the singer-songwriter he is channeling, Bob Dylan. And now, with Born on Flag Day, the Providence-based band has delivered one of the finest albums of the year.
Taken for what it is: strong folk leanings, with a sweet country shuffle, delivered with some of the best lyrics of the year, they all make for one brilliant combination. Ostensibly, McCauley’s voice sounds just the same and that gruff exterior is just fine when the music is this good. “Little White Lies”‘ beckoning calling finds McCauley singing a sad country ballad that sings, “With the thought of her, still dancing around my head. So please, let me be lonely tonight.” Forever unable to forget her, it’s like that viscous cycle many of us can relate to and just after that, the music cuts into a high-stepping, up-tempo taunt, “Let me forget about you.”
In many ways, it all comes in such an effortless manner, it feels like the band isn’t even trying and yet, the results are a resounding success. And ultimately, they’re enjoying each other’s company, wailing away on their instruments and following McCauley’s lead like loyal companions would. “Stung”‘s one-two punch is backed by a richly rediscovered but wildly loose rendition of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” While McCauley performs the song as an acoustic dedication, he asks the band to join in on the chorus and this was after they had shouted, exclaimed and rustled in the background with sneering excitement.
Undoubtedly masters of its craft, Deer Tick shakes and rattles to whatever style it has adopted. The rollicking rock-a-billy of “Straight into a Storm” is a stunning revelation as McCauley feels like a dancing steamroller with the electric guitar digging and cracking under him with splendid calamity. On the other side of the coin, “Smith Hill” is an unabashed folk tune with more of those bluntly honest lyrics. Revealing more of the tender hurt, McCauley sings unapologetically, “I could drink myself to death tonight, or I could stand and give a toast. To those who made it out alive, it’s you I’ll miss the most.” Here, the use of female vocals and fitting strings make for an outstanding fusion of despair and letting go.
It’s hard to let go of the hurt but as much as this feels like an album enriched in the beautiful struggle we call life, it’s also about the hope and optimism of what lies ahead. “The Ghost” appears in a cloak of country twang and jiving guitar and it captures the essence of what it feels like to make a decision for yourself, rather than allowing it to be made for you. And “Friday XIII” is yet another attention-grabbing moment, except this time because of the music’s skillful style and melody. Leading into the female-male interplay, it’s easily one of the album’s best songs because of its endearing charm and captivating story-telling.
Regardless of whether or not you liked War Elephant, Born on Flag Day should not be ignored. For one, the two albums are dissimilar in so many ways, it’d be unfair to even compare them. If nothing else, it should be noted that this is an album for anyone who’s gone through a break-up and was on the receiving end. Deer Tick delivers that hope you need and do so with fantastic arrangements, touching music and McCauley’s signature delivery. You’d be foolish not to check it out.