In the chorus of “Only Love,” midway through the acoustic, folky Deer Tick Vol. 1, Deer Tick front man John McCauley sings, “It’s only love, so don’t be afraid, it will let you down but not today … it won’t let you down until tomorrow.” It’s the sentiment that to me perfectly sums up this bifurcated record and reflects the hard-won lessons of an artist coming to adulthood in a world of less-than-happy endings.
Deer Tick has been around since 2004, an indie-folk outfit that sometimes rocks hard, riding the wave of the soft-loud dynamic that typifies much of the music that blends indie rock, folk and Americana. After a break of a few years in which frontman McCauley and the rest of the Rhode Island crew – guitarist Ian O’Neil, drummer Dennis Ryan, and bassist Christopher Ryan – did their own thing including, in McCauley’s case, starting a family, they’re back.
This time, instead of sprinkling a few louder tracks among the quiet, they’ve given in to their split personality and put out a double release, one quiet and one loud. One’s tempted to say one folk and one rock, but it’s not that simple. Is it ever, with any kind of art?
True, Dear Tick Vol. 1 is mostly acoustic folk-rock, with plenty of finger-picked guitars, some mandolin, the occasional harmonica. But every one of the 10 songs has a fully fleshed-out arrangement (all recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis). There’s what sounds like a Mellotron in the gentle opener “Sea Of Clouds,” tinkling electric piano on “Only Love,” and many subtly arresting moments from drummer Dennis Ryan, from thudding toms on “Card House” and thumping kick drum on “End Of The World” to emotion-heightening cymbal wash on “Only Love.”
Deer Tick doesn’t wear its influences on its collective sleeve, but the careful listener will hear plenty. The flamenco-inspired rhythm of the verses on “Card House” (one of several songs on the two CDs that involve the costs of substance abuse and other kinds of dependence) resolves into a catchy, jangly REM-inspired chorus. The revival-tent piano and laconic vocals of “Hope Is Big” seem an obvious homage to Leon Russell. “Me And My Man” calls to mind the L.A.-noir of Warren Zevon. The lyrics try to maintain a happy front on this acoustic rocker, even throwing in a Ventures-like “pipeline” guitar run at the end of the first chorus, but this bluer than blue tune is anything but sunny surf music. And the three songs that follow it to end Vol. 1 seem to get sadder and sadder: “End Of The World: is a doom-laden ballad worthy of The Handsome Family, with Appalachian-weary lyrics of toil and snares; “Limp Right Back” is a melancholy love song; and “Rejection” with its double-tracked vocals offers some hope but it’s still about reaching out to someone in the long process of recovery from addiction.
Even when they offer some apparent hope, Deer Tick nearly always undercut it with reality, the kind they’ve all racked up enough years to encounter. “Hope Is Big” sounds, well, hopeful, right? Except that “Hope is big, but they’re always gonna win,” as McCauley intones in his somewhat nasal tenor.
The songs on Vol. 2 seem a little less bleak, if only because you can dance or at least move to them. These songs are in a way the obverse of those on *Vol. 1* in that they’re billed as rock, and they are – garage or punk or power pop – but at base they’re not far removed from folk or folk-rock. They’re more often leavened by humor than those on Vol. 1, even if it’s usually sarcastic like the musician on the plodding Crazy Horse-like “Look How Clean I Am” (written and sung by O’Neil) using alleged sobriety as just one more prop of celebrity. Or another musician, delving into the love-hate relationship between musician and fan on “S.M.F.” Those initials stand for “shitty music festival,” and it’s set at one of those ubiquitous summer fests.
“It’s A Whale” sounds like nothing so much as early Social Distortion with its sneering vocals, distorted guitars and thumping punk rhythms. McCauley claims it’s somewhat political, but it’s hard to parse out the lyrics, which may reflect the mindset of a misogynistic right-winger or something else entirely.
That kind of punk frenzy gets calmed down on the elegiac instrumental “Pulse,” an homage to the victims of the mass shooting at a Florida nightclub. Right after those strains fade out, though, Vol. 2 goes out on a high note with the blisteringly fast-paced cowpunk of “Mr. Nothing Gets Worse.” The rapid-fire guitar picking and limber, shouted lyrics recall the ’80s heyday of the Meat Puppets, and the addition of a wailing sax brings to mind the Blasters.
Dear Tick shows its versatility on this double release. Neither the gentle folk numbers nor the hammering rockers come off as inauthentic. I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have been better to interweave the songs to sequentially mix the acoustic and electric, the folk and the punk. But far be it from me to second-guess a band that’s honed its work through more than a dozen years in the studio and on stage. Either way, this is an impressive release, one not to be missed by fans of thoughtful, independent-minded music, whether you call it folk or rock.