Review – Deer Tick – “Born On Flag Day”

Deer Tick "Born On Flag Day"

Average Rating: 71.5%

(Side 1: 88%; Side 2: 55%)

Listening to Rhode Island’s own Deer Tick is like trying to eat a walnut. You have to crack through an impenetrable outer shell before enjoying the tasty part inside. Case in point: To experience the textured songwriting, the dusty melodies and earnest instrumentation, you have to get past the fact that John McCauley sounds like he’s doing a constant impersonation of Popeye the Sailor Man. This single fact may be the central reason many a listener won’t give Deer Tick a chance.

And it’s a cryin’ shame.

Because Deer Tick are — alongside bands like Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse, Band of Horses, Okkervil River and even Arcade Fire — a band defined more by their collective spirit than by the tonal quality of their lead singer. These East Coasters move effortlessly from the back porches of the Mississippi Delta complete with screen porches and  moonshine to the Texarkana saloons complete with tumbleweeds and spur-clad cowboy boots. They’re as authentic a country rock’n’roll band (with a penchant for the blues) as any you’re like to hear, which is at once the best and worst thing about their sophomore album.

Because for all its promise and potential, there’s a problem with Born On Flag Day which can’t be overlooked. A problem best described by taking you through the album, track by track. Let’s get started…

Deer Tick "Born On Flag Day"

Side 1 (The Pain of Stayin’ Sober)

1. “Easy,” kicks off the album like an anthem for love-torn souls plagued with silver-lined heartbreak juxtaposed against murderous thoughts of revenge. Vintage Deer Tick, right? Dark, moody, up-tempo and unkempt. Full of spirit. I can feel McCauley’s pain, I share it with him. And I’m hooked. A good start to what could be a great album, and the song you’re most likely going to hear on the radio.

2. “Little White Lies,” follows next and starts off slow. I begin to worry whether we may have lost the tightly tuned songwriting and earnest delivery of yore. In the end I’d say this is one of the lesser songs of the front five tracks, but the change-up just past the two-minute mark grabs me by my flannel collar and throws me into the next track with a smile.

3. “Smith Hill,” is a heart-wrenching, soaring ballad which demonstrates a band coming into their own with important, memorable songs. Everything just comes together here. The peaks and valleys, the chill emotion in every word “I can drink myself to death tonight. I can stand and give a toast. To those who made it out alive, but it’s you I miss the most.”. This song might define the evolution of Deer Tick most succinctly. It’s also the song I want to listen to over and over again.

4. Hollow and barren, yet resonant for all its vacancy, “Song About a Man,” crescendos with a harmonica before retreating back into the creaky saloon where it came from. McCauley’s viewpoint comes through in the songwriting yet again: “How can a man feel anything, when all he’s ever got was sympathy?” A question I’ve never asked myself, yet it makes you wonder…

5. The guitar riff on “Houston, TX,” cascades beautifully, like a finely wrought Iron & Wine song, yet doesn’t resemble Sam Beam in any substantive way. We roll along a dirt road in a muddy pick-up and the sun’s just about to set. Everything’s all right as we ride off into the distance, with McCauley singin’ “Oh move on, oh move on.” And so we keep on moving.

Deer Tick "Born On Flag Day"

Side 2 (The Joy of Gettin’ Shitcanned)

But wait, there’s still another five tracks, right? So what am I doing driving off into the sunset you ask? Damn, you caught me. It’s just that… well I wish I could stop right now, because the rest of this until-now potential-filled album doesn’t hold a bottle rocket to the first five songs. Side 2 finds a different, lesser iteration of Deer Tick in just about every fathomable way.

This is the side of Deer Tick I hoped had been purged on War Elephant. The gravely emotion is replaced by lackluster honkey tonk homage, with John McCauley vying to open for Marty Stewart and George Strait on the next big Country & Western festival circuit. Summerfest here we come!

6. “Straight Into a Storm,” is something you might dance to at your local tavern, sawdust on the dancefloor, quarter in the jukebox. The only problem is that when you finally touch boot to hardwood floor you’re surrounded by your grandparents and all their friends. They love this song, and so you start to hate it.

7. On “Friday XIII,” McCauley makes a valiant effort to add some dimension with, dare I say it, a duet? I remember when Songs:Ohia made their Magnolia Electric Co. album. Three new vocalists joined the fray, including Jenny Benford, bringing something new to Molina’s music we hadn’t heard before. The only problem here is, this song is more a demonstration in getting drunk and fooling around with your girlfriend in her mom’s bedroom than it is a song of any true note. “So let’s get back to what, all that was fair and just, oh won’t you please love me again?” they croon during the chorus, and I feel like somehow they’re pleading directly to me.

8. “The Ghost,” had me yawning from the start, and nodding off by the end. I don’t mind a sleepy ballad, but when the songwriting devolves to lines like: “Oh you don’t have to say anything. But you have got to mean everything,” you have to wonder where the McCauley of old (just a few tracks old, specifically) ran off to? He sings off key in many places here, but not in the forgiving way borne of emotional delivery. Here I’m reminded of “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and I can’t help but wince.

9. “Hell On Earth,” is easily the strongest of this batch of songs, and for me the only bright spot on the back five. They took a down-trodden narrative and pushed it somewhere noteworthy, the way “Smith Hill,” proved they could do earlier on. Despite a slightly predictable and flat structure, I liked this melody enough to stick it out a little longer.

10. Deer Tick still don’t know how to end an album it seems, as “Stung,” tries desperately to take us out with a drunken doo wop flare. McCauley almost gets me to care through the first verse, even though it’s all a bit bad karaoke and too many Zimas to my ears. When the chorus finally kicks in I realize this is the last song of the album, the last song! and I’m fighting the nagging urge to skip back to the beginning and try to forget it ended like this.


But there’s not enough Coors Light in all of Rhode Island to drown out the memory of four of the last five tracks. They will live on in our iTunes this Flag Day and the next one and the one after that. Things started off so well Deer Tick, but something went wrong. Can I forgive you? Of course, but not until you release your second LP later this year. Maybe you can call it Born On Labor Day, and work a little harder on crafting ten songs to match the promise of the first five here?

11. Oh, there’s also a bonus song at the end of the last track, a cover of “Goodnight Irene,” sung in what sounds to be a friend’s kitchen complete with PBR’s cracking open and laughter and screaming in the din. It’s as warm and fuzzy as it is forgettable, though it might still have been a better choice to end the album than “Stung,” was. I’m just sayin’.

Mp3. “Easier”
Mp3. “Smith Hill”

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“Review – Deer Tick – “Born On Flag Day””