Deer Tick struggles but makes good, authentic music on Black Dirt Sessions

It’s inevitable that within every generation of musicians that strives to break new ground with cutting edge genres and recording techniques, there is a handful that instead go back to the roots of rock and roll and draw inspiration from what is seen as a more “authentic” source. Most recently, Jack White tore up the modern rock scene by covering old blues standards and shredding new songs inspired by the greats of the genre. In the midst of the chillwave, electronica-psych and indie-rock music of today exists a few bands willing to go back to the same sources–this time artists like Tom Petty, Hank Williams and Woodie Guthry–to again emulate music seen as more authentic and genuine.

Deer Tick, a Providence, Rhode Island-based group led by singer-songwriter John McCauley, is doing just this. The Black Dirt Sessions is the third record for McCauley and the band, following last year’s excellent Born On A Flag Day, and their weaker debut, War Elephant. On each of their first two albums, Deer Tick made pretty much the same variety of sad songs, each typically inspired by blues, folk, country or pop music. Their biggest strength has been their ability to capture great emotion within a short song and their biggest weakness has been trying to string those songs together into something that works as a whole.

On Born On A Flag Day, Deer Tick made a great step forward in raising the bar and putting more gusto into their songs. The lead single, “Easy,” was a great study in how to build tension and climax beautifully (evoking the same sort of song-writing heard in country epics like “Stand By Your Man”). On The Black Dirt Sessions, the band pulls a perfect 180 and knocks things down a notch. The gruff folk songs are replace by softer, haunting melodies, most featuring McCauley at the piano and featuring the band more sparsely (why not? He wrote most of the songs after all). While this format doesn’t best suit McCauley’s talents, it still makes for some interesting and engaging music.

While songs like “Twenty Miles” showcase the band’s ability as a working unit, the better moments on the album come when McCauley taps into his inner agitated folk-star. On “Goodbye, Dear Friend” and a newer (better) version of “Christ Jesus,” he takes over the stage and gives us a rare taste of classic, heart-wrenching music. Yes, it might be one of the most depressing songs you’ll hear all year but after numbing yourself with synth and distortion it’s good to hear something that can break that icy heart. On The Black Dirt Sessions Deer Tick certainly struggles to both write compelling songs and organize them in a cohesive manner, but they do manage a feat many bands don’t dare attempt–they make good, authentic music.

Deer Tick – “Twenty Miles” [MP3]

Deer Tick – “Christ Jesus” [MP3]

Buy The Black Dirt Sessions

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