Tom Waits. Bruce Springsteen. Guns N’ Roses. The list of artists who’ve released two albums on the same day is short, and the list of artists who’ve actually pulled it off is even shorter. The latest prospective initiate into that exclusive club is Deer Tick, the sometimes twangy, sometimes beer-soaked Rhode Island rock four-piece led by the scarecrow-voiced John McCauley.
Arriving 10 years to the month after the band’s 2007 debut, War Elephant, the self-titled records of Deer Tick Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 feel like a thesis-level statement of purpose that seeks to bridge the gap between Deer Tick’s two sides. Vol. 1 covers the melancholy acoustic sound that typified the band’s earliest work while Vol. 2 collects the brawnier bar rock that emerges during the band’s raucous live sets.
This ambition is rewarding, especially when held up against Deer Tick’s two most recent outings. The acoustic tracks of Vol. 1 plumb depths of more genuine rawness and feeling than the anodyne confessions of 2013’s Negativity. Meanwhile, Vol. 2’s electric tracks display more charmingly self-effacing awareness and introspection than the performative misbehavior of 2011’s album-length lost weekend Divine Providence. Credit that improvement to McCauley, who, in the years since Negativity, kicked addiction, married Vanessa Carlton, and celebrated the birth of his first child. While this more settled life might sap another songwriter’s powers of observation, it’s had the opposite effect on McCauley. Whether he’s pondering the temporary-but-potent comforts of love (“Only Love”) or retracing the steps that led to a past relationship’s end (“Sea of Cloud”), he does so with the most maturity and honesty he’s shown since 2010’s The Black Dirt Sessions.
Those songs are two of the highlights from Vol. 1, whose acoustic ruminations on aging, devotion, and the never-ending pull between dreams and reality are often beautiful and sometimes redundant — the anxious bolero of “Card House” and country croon of “Cocktail” excepted. Things get a little looser, both thematically and sonically, on the plugged-in Vol. 2, which mixes a little of Vol. 1’s interpersonal anxiety with self-deprecating snapshots of life as an aging rocker. The result is equal parts hits — the festival-skewering “S.M.F.”, the rootsy “Don’t Hurt” — and misses — most notably “Look How Clean I Am”, whose ill-advised speak-singing pairs with lyrics about newfound sobriety, maturity, and what comes after that pull some punches that sharper lyrics could land. A few production miscues also surface in the collection. “I’m a Whale” is a solid rocker that begs to be played both faster and louder, and “Tiny Fortunes” contains a beguiling piano part that, like the snippets of horns and brass that pop up far too infrequently on the album, could’ve greatly improved the record with an expanded presence.
The inability to fully transcend their influences and put their own stamp on their sound remains one of the big, recurring knocks against Deer Tick, but here it’s mostly forgivable if only because the chosen influences are so rock solid. In this case, that means accepting Vol. 2’s overt homages to one-time collaborator Paul Westerberg, whose brand of Grandpaboy-era bruised-and-boozy bar rock is felt on every track. Sometimes this is to an extensive degree–if you didn’t know “Jumpstarting” wasn’t the B-side from the “Seein’ Her” single on first listen, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. This threat of pastiche crops up intermittently on Vol. 1, as well– the Dylan-aping harmonica solo of “Hope Is Big”, drummer Dennis Ryan’s Levon Helm impersonation on “Me and My Man” — but it’s never quite as pervasive or expertly executed.
As with any simultaneous album release, one question looms largest: did these two records need to come out as separate releases, or did the band just lack the will to edit? In Deer Tick’s case, the answer probably leans towards the latter, and there’s one quietly stellar record between these two. As it stands, Deer Tick Vol. 1 & 2 is nonetheless a welcome return. It’s often messy and sometimes masterful, with the two records reflecting a revitalized band that’s found the footing that eluded them not in youthful disquiet, but in the complexities of getting older. You hear it best on “Mr. Nothing Gets Worse”, the Vol. 2 closer and best song on either record. As McCauley, Ryan, and guitarist Ian O’Neill each take a turn at the mic, doing their best to make their favorite Replacement proud, you can’t help but think: these guys are having a great time wondering how it’s all going to fall apart.
Essential Tracks: Vol. 1: “Sea of Clouds”, “Only Love”, and “Cocktail”; Vol. 2: “Don’t Hurt”, “Jumpstarting”, and “Mr. Nothing Gets Worse”