My relationship with John McCauley and Deer Tick over the years has been complicated. I actually ignored the Providence-born band for their first three indie folk releases. And then, on a whim, simply because I was a massive fan of McCauley’s then-fiancé Nikki Kvarnes’ band Those Darlins (I’m also a big fan of reverse sexism.), I decided to give Deer Tick’s 2011 Divine Providence an advance listen… to which I immediately and publicly proclaimed, “This might be the greatest album I’ve ever heard. Sorry, John and Lou.” The album was a brilliant blend of alt. country and punk (a few of my favorite things) for an infectious and aggressive brand of garage Americana… something that seemed to be personally tailored to my own tastes. The songs on the album were aggressively sloppy, anthemic, and, often times, heavy-as-fuck in their existential profundities… I was completely obsessed (and still am, to this day). I went back and listened to the previous albums, and they still didn’t really resonate… but that was okay. This album was enough to make Deer Tick pretty much my favorite band in the land. But then there becomes the issue of the follow-up…
This September saw the release of Deer Tick’s fifth LP, Negativity. The album didn’t exactly inspire a sequel to the love affair that I had with Divine Providence (which I still maintain is possibly the best album of the century), but it certainly is Deer Tick’s most complex and dynamic work. It wasn’t McCauley as the scruffy loner of the band’s early years and it wasn’t the rambunctious drunken sage of Divine Providence. Negativity sees McCauley as a wise and charming anti-hero, equal parts Randy Newman, Townes Van Zandt, and the New York Dolls’ David Johansen that could be at home in Las Vegas, the grimiest of chicken-wire strewn stages of a dive bar, or Max’s Kansas City. It represents his collective accomplishments and agonies. Much of it was inspired by his dealing with his dad being sentenced to prison and his engagement falling apart, but his ability to coyly amuse himself with his own life tragedies makes the whole thing quite cynically uplifting.
Well, McCauley and crew returned to Philthy this past Wednesday, November 6th, for the first time in a year and a half and the first time since they weren’t promoting Divine Providence… I had no idea what to expect… Of their last area appearance I wrote, “McCauley and crew aren’t exactly ‘charismatic’ in the traditional sense of the word… And they certainly haven’t caused anyone to re-evaluate the criteria by which they consider live music… But that kind of seems to be the point.” That, however, has since changed, with McCauley now resembling a delightfully tacky postmodern crooner, equally indebted to the previously mentioned gents (When a fan admired his suit, he replied, “Thanks. It’s made of my couch.”)
The evening generally focused on Negativity, the most sincere work of McCauley’s career, giving the band a credibility as writers and musicians… despite all of their delightful quirks. The performance opened with lead single “The Rock,” a ten-ton truck about living in the wreckage of an inevitably failing relationship that is as immediately engaging as it is hard to hear… It set the tone for a slightly more serious Deer Tick. Other highlights from Negativity included “The Curtain,” a swaggery, twangy, introspective blues number; “Big House,” which has McCauley at his most stripped and vulnerable; and “The Dream’s in the Ditch,” the evening’s most light-hearted and catchy number about the loss of all things that make you happy (I think Tom Petty easily could’ve written this.)
However, as much as I appreciate Deer Tick’s evolution, which I’m guessing will now allow them to soundtrack a plethora of additional life experiences, it was those five tracks from Divine Providence that made their way into the set that proved to be the highlights… And I hope they wouldn’t take offense to that. After all, they capped off the night with “Let’s All Go to the Bar,” the punk anthem just as beautifully irresponsible as its name promises (It even led to some stage diving.) In addition, there was “Main Street,” the snappy hangover number that owes as much to 1950s high school dance jams as it does to garage rock; “Miss K,” the playful and perfectly crafted pop tune about banging an older broad with a drinking problem; and “The Bump,” which is, I’m just going to say it… the best song written about cocaine in the past decade. However, the evening’s greatest moments came when drummer Dennis Ryan, and not John McCauley, found himself behind the mic for “Clownin Around,” a song that has John Wayne Gacy taking a look at his life in a manner as crass, elegant, and profound as Baudelaire could’ve ever produced and a song which I have both proclaimed, “The most biting and brilliant country ballad since Townes Van Zandt’s ‘No Place to Fall,’” and “Makes ‘Helter Skelter’ sound like the theme song to The Magic School Bus.”