Deer Tick – Black Dirt Sessions

by Brian Willett

Deer Tick front man John McCauley has been honing his sound since 2004, touring around the country and taking inspiration from his travels.  Even the band’s name was inspired by one of McCauley’s adventures — a hike that ended with a deer tick attaching itself to McCauley’s scalp.  Perhaps that deer tick was trying to get inside McCauley’s brain.  If so, it was on the right trail — McCauley has a lot on his mind, and The Black Dirt Sessions proves just that

The opening track, “Choir of Angels,” has a 50s-esque guitar line accompanying McCauley’s distinct, road-worn vocals.  Deer Tick offers the intimate, accessible sound of a lone singer-songwriter, but provides a lot of backing instrumentation to add depth and emotion to their songs.  This track is no different, with a choir of background singers and a solid bass line.  McCauley also reveals that his rough voice is capable of expressing tenderness and beauty as he sings, “Sing choir of angels, sing me to sleep. Sing soft and sweet — I’m yours to keep.”

“Twenty Miles” features great, steady guitar picking and piano in the introduction, and McCauley joins in as if his voice is just another instrument in the band.  Like most of Deer Tick’s material, the track doesn’t feel rushed, but it does feel relevant and perhaps even urgent, as if the story McCauley is telling can’t wait.  Here, he seems to offer a less-creepy version of Sting’s “Every Breath You Take,” with the lyrics, “If you’re running away, then I’m looking for you, and if you’ve lost your way I’m seeing you through.”

“Goodbye Dear Friend” brings the tempo down and relies a bit more on piano to pack the emotional punch.  McCauley may have a distinctive voice, but it isn’t at all distracting, and he’s able to express heartbreaking loss quite well here.  The sparse instrumentation was a great choice, and makes every note seem more poignant and affective.  McCauley is right on the mark when he sings, “Some stories break your heart…it’s okay to cry.”  He proves himself to be a master storyteller, singing, “You carry on, in pictures and in song, in the unmade bed you slept in, where I laid you down to rest one last time. Goodbye, dear friend.”

The next track, “Piece by Piece and Frame by Frame” brings back the acoustic guitar, and McCauley proves himself a capable player, singing along as he strums steadily.  As the track progresses, the band adds in subtle touches of piano that expand the feel of the song without overwhelming it.

“The Sad Sun” offers more great acoustic guitar, with plenty of neat little licks between lines.  The track features a duet on the vocals, which has a nice sound thanks to the female lead contrasting McCauley’s voice.  ”The Sad Sun” is every bit as solemn as the title suggests, with McCauley wondering at one point, “Just what have they accomplished here?”

“Mange” has a classic rock vibe, with some picked electric guitar and bouncing bass carrying McCauley’s vocals throughout.  Deer Tick succeeds where many bands fail on this track by offering plenty of room for the instruments to breathe between verses, instead of cutting right back into vocals.  There’s also a funky piano solo in the middle of the track that leads into a raucous guitar solo.  From the sounds of it, Deer Tick has been waiting to bust that one out for a while.

“When She Comes Home” is another song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a classic rock radio station, with some more solid electric guitar and steady percussion.  McCauley does a good job capturing the “I hate everything” feeling of broken relationships, singing, “The whole world is wrong today. You’ve been gone so long, I lost count of days.”

The rest of the album delivers more of the same, with solid lyrics, skilled instrumentation ranging from up-tempo electric guitar to slow, emotional acoustic guitar and piano.  One of the highlights is the album’s final track, “Christ Jesus.”  The song originally appeared on Deer Tick’s War Elephant, but after hearing this version, you’ll forget any other recording of it exists.

Deer Tick may be an acquired taste — though reviewers seem to make more out of McCauley’s unique vocals than actually exists — but once you’ve gotten a taste, you’re likely to come back for more.  The band’s sound ranges from solemn, brooding acoustic tracks to loud, party-friendly tunes, and most listeners will find themselves tapping their foot and singing alone somewhere in between.