Years before the 2007 release of his first album, War Elephant, Deer Tick frontman John McCauley had already found himself a devoted fanbase through frantic touring and a handful of promising home-recorded albums. I'm lucky enough to own the three CD-R set (The Complete Recordings) that McCauley was selling on tour back in '05 and '06, featuring early versions of half-a-dozen or so of the best songs from War Elephant (including a slow, heartbreaking version of "Dirty Dishes"), as well as plenty of unfinished cuts and songs that never quite made it. It's a fascinating look at a brilliant young kid working out his sound, and obviously soon to make it big. Jump ahead a few years and you've got solid reviews for War Elephant pretty much across the board—if not everyone loved it, they at least knew the band was one to watch out for. They'd made their way onto Pitchfork, into Rolling Stone, and, just recently, onto the first episode of BriTunes, an indie music interview series hosted by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.
Now, with the release of their second album, Born on Flag Day, some critics have begun to complain about authenticity. As Joshua Love at Pitchfork writes, ''Deer Tick's primary shortcoming is that the band evokes authentically gutty music from the past without noticeably inserting much of themselves into the equation, achieving superficial mimesis and comforting recognition while failing to put their own stamp on their creations." Talya Cooper at Dusted was far harsher:
The title of Deer Tick’s sophomore effort, Born On Flag Day, can be interpreted as either a loving hat-tip to Americana quirks or as an eye-rolling Big Buck Hunter-style ironic embrace of homeland lovin’. And here’s where you should say, “But no country is authentic!” (or “Who cares if Brian Williams adores Deer Tick, what matters is McCauley’s songwriting!”) But honestly, at this point, country rock is the most unobjectionable music one can make. Float a slide guitar over a crunchy rhythm guitar, brush those cymbals, rasp some beery wisdom (“It couldn’t be much fun bein’ a millionaire to one/Cuz a million’s just a million of one thing”), and if the chord progression works, the song will probably speak to the heart of at least one person who hears it after precisely the right number of drinks.
Reading Love and Cooper's reviews you'd think McCauley was just another boozer guitarist with a John Prine songbook, laying down strained G-C-D chord progressions for the jukebox at the late-night honky-tonk across the street from the local Denny's—a cheap novelty at best, a sellout about to go the way of CMT at worst. I'm not sure what it takes exactly to be so tone-deaf and shallow, but it probably involves owning a worn out vinyl copy of The Postal Service debut and lasting regrets about your high-school band never making it.
Deer Tick's sound on this second album (and on recent tours) has improved with the addition of lead guitarist Andrew Grant Tobiassen, who can wail a distorted solo or lay down pleasant harmony equally well. It was the obvious and necessary next step that allowed McCauley to extend the songs past the two-minute mark (one of the short-comings of War Elephant), and to get more gritty and roots-rock in the process, which is obvious from the opening of the first song, "Easy." That the songs are slicker, and the production more accomplished, reflects only the band's exhausting touring schedule. They're simply one of the best touring bands out there, which is why the album sounds a lot like a bunch of twentysomethings having fun, and why song 10 ends with a hidden track live cover of "Goodnight Irene."
McCauley's lyrics are still as solid and heartfelt as ever. Some of the best songs here include the gentle acoustic ballad "Song About a Man," the roll-lickin' rockabilly of "Straight into a Storm," and a couple of songs that tread War Elephant ground—"The Ghost" and "Little White Lies" (appropriately so, since both were written years ago).
Maybe if Deer Tick trafficked in more experimental alt-folk—the kind with an obligatory saw player, subtle electronica touches, and a random four-track song with hand-clap percussion—they could make themselves into darlings of the indie web-mag critics. Then again, I don't hear anyone complaining about authenticity when Phosphorescent puts out a Willie Nelson tribute album. As it is, Born on Flag Day is just straight-forward, easy-going, and a hell of a lot of fun.