Deer Tick

Greatest Hits

(Self-released; 2006)

By Andre Perry | 9 March 2007

Playing last on a bill in a small town where he doesn’t know a soul, John McCauley takes the stage. Actually, he takes to the middle of the room--no microphone, nothing, just his voice, guitar, and a glass of Maker’s Mark. Stakes are high: if he blows it the crowd will hate him for playing bad music and invading their personal space. Fortunately, his stint turns out to be a compelling and intimate show. McCauley dances on bar tables, swigs his whisky, plays his songs, and works the audience with tour stories and self-deprecating banter.

Age twenty, McCauley, a.k.a. Deer Tick, is from Rhode Island, runs in the same folk scene as Nat Baldwin, and travels around the country playing shows (no venue too small), self-releasing albums until someone eventually signs him. His music bleeds '60s rock influences, his voice teetering between a Highway 61 (1965)-era Dylan and a country-tinged Jagger. He also comes off like an oddly endearing smart-alec kid and it’s this juvenile charm that sets McCauley apart from his idols. As he states in his liner notes, “The concept of this album is that it would be funny to have a greatest hits album.”

Greatest Hits is a misleading title: only four of the eleven songs are compiled from previous self-releases. The remainder is filled with five newly recorded originals and two covers. McCauley sheds the predictable minimalist folk stance and plays several instruments on these songs, even bringing in some guests, like Baldwin on upright bass, for select tracks. Room-mic’d drums and rickety upright pianos drive home McCauley’s message. On the four best songs of the bunch-- “Diamond Rings 2006,” “Ashamed,” “Axe Is Forever,” and “Long Time”--McCauley is stunning, each of the four sounding like it could have fallen out of a closet of lost masters from some classic rock band.

Spare and beautiful, the opener, “Ashamed,” unveils McCauley’s lyrical obsession with his repeated failure to meet the expectations of lovers. He sings, “I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet / But I am broken and torn with halos at my feet.” He continues in “Art Isn’t Real” admitting, “I am a dotted line and you fill me in with whatever you like / I’m just going through the motions.” “Diamond Rings 2006” unravels the inevitable outcome of his inability to measure up to his sweethearts, mourning, “What good would fingers be if it weren’t for diamond rings / Now I know you’re leaving me and I know that I’m no king.” McCauley also seems a little afraid of being able to “make it” in his impending adult life, dropping lines like, “In the bowels of history and time / I have learned to stay back and never shine.” Pretty damn stark for someone who’s only twenty.

Lyrical bummers aside, the music is often upbeat. “Dirty Dishes” and “Axe is Forever” swagger like drunken dance steps while “Sink or Swim” is an amped-up waltz recalling the intensity of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy” and the desolation-romps of Two Gallants. On slower songs, McCauley’s accomplished finger picking is hypnotic. In fact, Greatest Hits rarely fails outright, but still has a few liabilities. “Not So Dense” tries to create a warm, intimate space by stripping back the instrumentation, instead revealing a grating, overdriven guitar and a strained vocal performance. The two cover songs, “That Old Black Magic” and “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (both Sammy Davis Jr. standards), while played in earnest, seem less inspired than his own songs and ultimately become filler.

The lasting effect of Greatest Hits: something you’ve heard before on some old Kinks, Stones, or Dylan record but don’t mind hearing again. McCauley’s vocal presence stands up on its own and amidst all of the throwback rock he is establishing his own voice in the indie-folk scene; his confidence is rendered, legal drinking-age forthcoming. The challenge will be for McCauley to develop more of his own instrumental sounds on the next record because if he stays too close to what we have here then Greatest Hits will be the only Deer Tick album a casual listener ever needs, which, given the title, is perhaps appropriate. But judging from McCauley’s joke -- putting out a greatest hits record by a band that isn’t even signed -- I’d imagine he’s trying to undermine our expectations of this as the end-all, be-all Deer Tick collection. Pour your Maker’s and stay tuned: he’ll be back with Part II quite soon.