Until a few weeks ago, I referred to Deer Tick as “Nikki Darlin’s Husband’s Band.” (How’s that for reverse sexism!?!?) However, upon hearing the Providence, Rhode Island band’s fourth LP (Divine Providence, out today on Partisan Records), front-man John McCauley has stepped out of his wife’s shadow. Anyone who follows me on Twitter (If you don’t, you should via @IzzyCihak) or is a regular receiver of my texts has, in the past couple weeks, heard sentiments such as “The new Deer Tick is THE best album I’ve ever heard,” “Seriously, the new Deer Tick is the mayor of Awesome Town,” and “Does anyone else have an advance of the upcoming Deer Tick? This might be the greatest album I’ve ever heard. Sorry, John and Lou.” Divine Providence is the “perfect” album for drinking, crying, farting, and fighting (Yes, it covers each base quite thoroughly.) I don’t give out starred ratings to albums but, if I did, Divine Providence would force me to ponder a five-star assessment.
Although not officially hitting the streets until today, Philthy (the city, not this publication) got a preview of Divine Providence a week and a half ago when the band made a local stop at UPenn’s Harrison Auditorium (The last time I was in this room, I met David Lynch… not the friendliest precedent to set.) Okay, so a seated auditorium on the campus of an Ivy League school that regularly hosts lectures on “the sciences,” wasn’t exactly the best setting for a band. To add insult to injury, the venue was dry and the vast majority of those in attendance were UPenn UHBs, there for the openers (who were simply placed on the bill by the school and who have no affiliation with Deer Tick or anything that doesn’t completely suck ass), Fun, who are more or less a cross between the band Train and musical theatre. However, there were a handful of plaid-shirted, trucker-hatted, moustached-ed Deer Tick fans in attendance that seemed to appreciate the irony of the situation.
I must admit that I’m not the standard Deer Tick fan and, although I have a number of their releases that have been sent to me, as a music journalist, I’ve never been especially taken with any of their work… until Divine Providence, which has the band filtering all of their crass (pseudo) Southern charm (usually projected as alt. country) through the punk aesthetic that was previously only apparent to those who have seen the band in concert.
Their recent Philadelphia performance (and their latest album) opened with “The Bump,” a boastful and sexily sluggish Three-Sheets-to-the-Wind anthem about how John McCauley is pretty much the most badass motherfucker on the planet to party with. Although the set did contain a few “classics,” I was thankful that they weren’t afraid to have their upcoming release do the brunt of the talking. Not to take anything away from McCauley, but the evening’s two highlights were the only two which featured another band member on lead vocals. “Clownin Around,” the high point of the evening (and the album… and the band’s career… and, likely, 2011 in music in general) had drummer Dennis Ryan belting the most biting and brilliant country ballad since Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall.” And the runner-up went to “Walkin out the Door,” a glittered garage glam number almost as sleazily lovable as “Personality Crisis,” which had guitarist Ian O’Neil taking lead vocal duties.
Those in attendance didn’t seem to mind the slew of new songs that comprised the majority of the evening’s entertainment and I didn’t mind that small handful of classics that punctuated the set. In a live setting it’s unavoidably apparent that “Ashamed” and “Smith Hill” are nearly as heavy as “Clownin Around” (or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” for that matter) and there probably aren’t many songs more suitable for soundtracking your attempt to take on the desert with a Cadillac than “Easy.” The evening closed with a bit of a WTF moment (as least for those uninitiated into Deer Tick’s brilliance). Well, they are a part-time Nirvana tribute band, Deervana. They are also big fans of early Rock’N’Roll. They took on Nirvana’s “On a Plain” and segued into “La Bamba” for one of the most enjoyably confused encores I’ve ever heard… and it was pretty much as awesome as it sounds.
Although the majority of Divine Providence did make its way into the setlist, two of its best ballads (which would have been perfect for the venue, likely the most serene they have ever, and will ever, play) remained absent: “Chevy Express,” an ode to highways and a “Fuck You” to those in charge of them, is as sincere and touching a ballad as the 21st century has heard (I’m not kidding) and “Now It’s Your Turn,” which has a sound reminiscent of the most poignant of Sunset strippers at their most pensive (see: A shirtless, chapped Slash chainsmoking atop the Hollywood Hills, sharing an intimate moment with his Les Paul.)