No one can deny Deer Tick has paid their dues, and with their latest release, Negativity, they’re also looking to pay their rent. As Shakespeare wrote: “For McCauley is an honorable man, so are they all–all honorable men. Come I to speak at Deer Tick’s Funeral.”
All right, we take liberties here, but betrayal is afoot, and in both cases the public loses. If you know Deer Tick at all it’s from their hopeless and hungry everyman efforts on Born on Flag Day, or Divine Providence. It’s long been noted how these Rhode Island lads are the only true protégé to the opposite coast’s Nirvana. It was never hard to see why: there was a beauty, a conviction contained within their music that flouted contemporary standards. There was the sense they made music not because they wanted to sell a lot of records, but because they actually liked music, and perhaps most of the music they were assaulted by on a daily basis was sub-par, and they believed they could do it better. Because mainstream rock vocalists could sing with technical proficiency without an ounce of soul, because the minor fall and the major lift of the verse chorus/verse chorus structure could actually please the lord. Because no one else had the balls to go their own way.
It does require moxie to do what John McCauley’s done. There’s a disparity about being a musician: everyone admires them but no one wants to be one in the beginning. Outside Julliard, outside classical training or inheritance it’s a bit like declaring to society (as well as your parents) your intentions to be a radical. You’re going to do everything the wrong way and expect positive results. It’s a bit insane really. But Deer Tick has done just that. Listen to tracks like “Clowning Around,” “Let’s All Go to the Bar,” “Friday XIII,” “Smith Hill,” “Twenty Miles,” or “Middle Brother,” and we can all agree on the positive results. While slick pre-manufactured acts with a declared agenda were saturating the radio waves over the course of the aughties, with forced lyrics telling you how rock ‘n’ roll they were on every single chorus, Deer Tick didn’t need to go that route because Deer Tick was rock ‘n’ roll. And hell, the radio wasn’t going to play them anyway because they were the drunk driver mowing over those middle-of-the-road bands in a filthy, exhaust-spewing, graffiti-sprawled touring van.
It would seem those days are over, though. Much like The Phantom Menace or New Testament before it, Negativity runs the severe risk of alienating an established fan base in the hopes of acquiring a vast new one. The very opening track, “The Rock,” declares with production value alone that this won’t be your average Deer Tick record. The inclusion of horns, piano and bells adds a dynamic not previously engaged for the group. Also breaking with previous works is the vocal delivery. It’s a Nashville Skyline moment and perhaps Mr. McCauley quit smoking too. It’s a fine song, the lyrics might be a little convoluted, and the extended intro and outro don’t really do it any favors.
Skip track two and listen instead to the 80’s sitcom theme song, “Just Friends.” It would be the perfect intro for a soft focus dramady where a lower middle class family sticks together through thick and thin. I don’t think it was intended to be funny. Skip the next track as well; it’s more bells and mid-tempo sentimental drivel whose only bright spot is the classical piano melody spanning a bridge. “Mirror Walls” is a fair offering, dreary in Deer Tick’s fine tradition with clever lyrics even. But it doesn’t do much to carry the first full half of the album.
“Mr. Sticks” seems promising with its immediate opening, but quickly turns south to become more of the same mid-tempo, clichéd belly aching. “A baby cries / An old man dies.” C’mon Mr. McCauley, suck it up and try. “Trash” is a curve ball after so many strikes. It’s a seventies blues-infused white boy tune belted out with a bit of uncharacteristic panache. Again with the horns; I mean, we get it, you’re trying to make adult music now, but at least the brass is scaled back somewhat and a dirty delta lead is allowed to dominate between verses.
The most solid track follows. “Thyme” should have been the direction the entire album took. It’s downright sinister, but there isn’t an ounce of the juvenile humor or self-deprecation Mr. McCauley is trying so hard to avoid. The piano work is classy, the vocal delivery drips of conviction and thankfully there’s not a goddamned horn anywhere on it. And it seems Negativity begins to build momentum on the following track, “In Our Time.” The narrative duet featuring Ms. Vanessa Carlton of “A Thousand Miles” fame is an all-around solid song. The music is interesting, the narrative intriguing and the pairing an edgy but overall great decision. Well done, Deer Tick. Unfortunately the rest of the album fails to sustain that momentum.
Perhaps I should clear my head and not be too judgmental; after all, this is pop music we’re talking about, right? No! Deer Tick was no more pop than Nirvana, Leonard Cohen, or Leadbelly. Their music wasn’t just something pleasing to listen to and distract yourself with. They were one of those rare groups that articulated the passion and emotion you felt but couldn’t describe. I could be and probably am wrong about everything. But it seems like the cleaner image recently displayed by Mr. McCauley combined with the lush, overly produced yet hum-drum sound on this latest record isn’t so much a new direction as a business venture. Deer Tick is poised to take on a new following without the loyalty or conviction of the traditional fan base but complete with the perfect absence of soul that is so well displayed on Negativity. I accept this as a new direction for a great band, but beware the Ides, Mr. McCauley.