Deer Tick comes to the cause of country-not-country with a savior at the front of the pack. John McCauley’s transformation from singer of a rock band to something a good bit deeper, is on display within the running order of The Black Dirt Sessions, the band’s third and finest album to date.
Showy and annoying at first, the initial tracks find a guy with a personality who likes to show off his range, in a voice that sounds somewhere between Michael Stipe’s wizardly Southern gentleman and the braying didacticism of Live’s Ed Kowalczyk. As a record sequenced for impact, the first two tracks seem to be singles – the organ grind and choral uplift of opener “Choir of Angels” (hello, Captain Obvious!) and the back porch kickback of “Twenty Miles” lead into “Goodbye, Dear Friend,” the record’s first grab at immortality. We all know why songs like this heart-rending ballad are written, it’s the sign of the true egotist to try to write the signature song on death and loss, and McCauley is reaching for the Warren Zevon Award with this one.
Curious, then, that The Black Dirt Sessions levels out, with the kind of material any of McCauley’s inspirations would have been pleased to have written themselves. Through songs like “The Sad Sun” and especially “When She Comes Home,” the talent of this crew shines across, an antidote to all the more cloying moments that get the punters on the barstools. This isn’t something to overthink; there are plenty of hacks out there, and McCauley is making steps to ensure that he doesn’t become one of them.
Don’t worry about the band – they can play these songs up and down, ceiling to floor. Listening to their skill makes you all but forget about there being any rulebook for authenticity in rural rock. It’s not all great, but there are some bloodcurdling moments (like McCauley’s last belt of the chorus in closer “Christ Jesus”) that outweigh any of their trivial, handshaking statements of good will or common denominator games. While it’s known that heart-on-sleeve American rock n’ roots can fortify, it’s rare that this sort of music has the power to surprise.