Deer Tick In Five Songs | Concert Preview

In one year, John McCauley saw his father go to jail and labored through a broken engagement. And then McCauley’s band Deer Tick produced the smoothest, most pop/rock record of their eight-year-history.

Chalk it up to age, a cleaner lifestyle and the nearly decade-old rock outfit growing firmer and firmer in its bandhood, never just a songwriting project for the singer McCauley. What can be said is that through five albums, the Providence, R.I., sons have yet to repeat themselves. From sparse haunting rock to exploding party anthems to country swing, their five albums have been identity-making, always demonstrating an uncanny ability to invite the audience into the band’s self-constructed world — to the bar, to the wrong side of the tracks, to a city of sin and, maybe, its new album Negativity brings us all the way back from the depths.

Deer Tick will stop in Omaha on Friday at Slowdown with Robert Ellis. Tickets are available here. In the meantime, prepare for the Providence rock band’s live set with five songs that uncover the band’s many faces: the swollen cheeks, bloodshot eyes and sideways grins.

1. “Baltimore Blues No. 1” — War Elephant (2007)

Let’s start with the song that became Deer Tick’s breakout song three years after it was already out. Trace its success to their performance of “Baltimore Blues No. 1” on the Late Show in 2010, one of those rare nights when the music seemed to jolt the wiley, exhausted David Letterman out of his 30-year stupor. Plus, he invited them back just a year later.

“Blues” here is used loosely to express a blank, biting feeling more than aesthetic in a song featuring two moving, minor guitar riffs and the band’s tendency to wildly fluctuate its tempos. The song is all told in a detached voice from Baltimore’s underbelly, warning “Jack” (as in, “Hey, listen, Jack…”) that he’s out of his depth, but thanking him for the company.

So far as we know, there has never been a “Baltimore Blues No. 2.” It’s possible the narrator never made it back from the other side to tell about it.

2. “The Dream’s In The Ditch” — Negativity (2013)

This one will be important for understanding the newfound smoothness the audience might see on the stage Friday night. “The Dream’s In The Ditch” is the first single from Negativity, and it’s one of the few non-McCauley-fronted songs in the Deer Tick discography (see also “Clowning Around” led by drummer Dennis Ryan).

While they might be nasal-singing brothers, guitarist Ian O’Neil’s voice is more of a proclaimer than a creten in a song so straight-laced that when you watched early live performances of the single, the band was still very seriously in need of not working out the kinks, but shuffling in more.

Like much of the record, the single is lyrically as troubled and wrought with failure as ever, but just with an exterior that shrugs a little easier, perhaps just because it’s shrugged so many times before.

“Now the dream’s in the ditch / and the kids are all pissed / but it’s not new to hate what they make you do,” O’Neil sings.

As the album’s title and cover suggest, it addresses cynicism, but does so with the freedom and perspective of a biplane soaring through a world on which it now realizes it has no real bearing.

3. “Let’s All Go To The Bar” — Divine Providence (2011)

If you saw Deer Tick the last time they were through Omaha, you saw the Divine Providence album played almost in full (and maybe a little more than you bargained for). This romp was the show closer and the height of Deer Tick’s short-lived, party punk rock phase in 2011.

At the pinnacle of their debauchery — drunk before, during and after every show —  it was the perfect song for when McCauley was too loaded to remember lyrics. Six syllables and then a growly full-band chorus of “let’s all go to the bar.” Nothing in the words spoke louder than the mosh it triggered anyway.

Given the new leaf turned over by Negativity, we could look at “Let’s All Go To The Bar” as the last, long laugh before the Deer Tick’s metaphorical collapse and reformation.

4. “Christ Jesus” — The Black Dirt Sessions (2010)

Even when he’s screaming, even when McCauley is ruining his larynx note-by-note, there is rarely anger in a Deer Tick song without some sadness. “Christ Jesus” is depressive on the deepest cosmic level. In 2010’s “Christ Jesus,” a more somber, prettier reinterpretation of a strange and dissonant song from their 2007 debut, the song’s speaker feels abandoned by a savior who never gave him much of a shot. Through ironic hymnal-sounding grit, McCauley doubtingly accuses the Messiah of being an abusive boyfriend and a blind actor in human lives.

Acoustic pedal-held piano chords is a feature of a couple songs on The Black Dirt Sessions, but like most things sweet and true, you’ll find Deer Tick dabbling in them once or twice and then fleeing toward something more uneven.

5. “Not So Dense” — War Elephant (2007)

Purists will argue that Deer Tick was at their most interesting seven years ago when they exuded madness and confusion and danger. Beyond the boldness that comes from a long-borne first record without regard to labels and contracts, War Elephant-era Deer Tick is the least pragmatic work of their career, full of extra sounds and trembling hands.

“Not So Dense” spits out a landscape of buzzes and whirs that is probably only half-intentional and lyrics like ramblings from a slurring, pedantic philosopher. Even as it moves toward major chords in a short-lived bridge, for a song about being “stripped bare of consciousness” and the world having no heroes, it’s no wonder that McCauley doubles back to rip the heart out of the song with infamous lines: “If you don’t drink your milk, young man, you know it’ll turn sour. And I watch 60 Minutes go by hour after hour after hour.”

It’s that kick-the-can moment that shows how precise Deer Tick could be in its early rage, how at their haziest they could stumble around drunk and still throw bullseyes.