Thursday, December 31, 2009

Deer Tick - Born on Flag Day

Rating: B+

Deer Tick is kind of a litmus test for your take on the importance of authenticity in rock 'n roll music. On the face of it, Deer Tick are just a bunch of poseurs. Look at Born on Flag Day's hidden track: A twenty-something dude from Rhode Island (John Joseph McCauley III, the band's lead singer, guitar player, and songwriter) rasping out Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" live, over stereotypical live bar-room sounds - bottles clinking, pool balls clacking, laughter and talking over the guitar strumming. Does it get any more contrived than that?

So how you feel about authenticity is likely how you're going to feel about Deer Tick. If you think blues can only be written by those who've suffered, if you think country music is for southerners, and if a bunch o' young white guys covering an old black dude (as in the aforementioned Leadbelly cover) makes you feel uneasy - you're probably not going to dig Deer Tick.

The flipside is the argument that everything in the rock idiom is derivative - that it's the All-American melting pot of blues, country, folk, and bluegrass, and that criticizing rock music for being derivative is like criticizing ice cream for being cold. Sure, some bands wear their influences on their sleeves, as Deer Tick does, but that just means they're producing a more coherent synthesis.

I don't find either argument entirely persuasive, but a lot of that is around what "authenticity" even means. I think authenticity is important, but confining authenticity to antiquated notions of who should be playing certain kinds of music is artificially limiting. The thing that makes music, or any art, compelling is the extent to which it touches on common chords on human emotion. John Joseph McCauley III's experiences may differ tremendously from the artists who created early blues music, early country music, and even early rock 'n roll - but he knows what loneliness feels like, the appeal of wide open spaces, and the propulsive energy of music; and, most importantly, he can pass that along.

Which isn't to say Born on Flag Day is a masterpiece. It's uneven, as if by design, with hard rocking numbers sandwiching sleepier tracks, blues following country following rockabilly. The two standout tracks are as good as anything released in 2009. "Easy" is a vicious straight-ahead rocker, propelled by a deft Christopher Dale Ryan (seriously, why do these guys all use their middle names) bassline and a snarling chorus ("No you don't know / how easy it is"). "Smith Hill," which refers to an area of the band's hometown of Providence, RI, is a wonderfully written song. The harmonies coming in on the last line of the verse "Tonight I'll see my sweetheart / I've got a fifty dollar bill / But somewhere in her weak heart / She knows I never will" are chilling. The strings on the track make it sound a little slick and over-produced; Deer Tick is a band that sounds better raw than polished. They blew me away live, but the recorded product is not quite as strong.

Which brings us back to authenticity, I guess. Your mileage may vary on what authentic means, whether a bunch of white Northern youngsters from the city can play music originated by folks from basically the exact opposite circumstances. It works for me, as long as they're playing the hell out of it, and Deer Tick are.

Buy it from Amazon (MP3 Format) (only $5 if you act now!)
Deer Tick on MySpace

No comments: