The last time Deer Tick were in Portland, at SPACE Gallery in November 2007, then-21-year-old frontman John McCauley decided to sing the national anthem. He sprung offstage and hit the floor belting the Tony Bennett standard "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" in a nasal voice soaked in equal parts whiskey, battery acid, and gravel. The concept was ironic, but the delivery was possessed: bombastic and a little maniacal, McCauley ingeniously blurred the line between reverence and deadpan humor.
War Elephant (Feow 2007, re-issued 2008 on Partisan), the band's outstanding debut, wasn't as ostentatious as all that, but found McCauley playing fast-and-loose with country traditions in a similar way. The singer's melancholy was steeped in a self-effacement reminiscent of Hank Williams, but his suffering was rendered in harsh, cutting language ("Murdered my throat, screaming bloody all night"). The distinction between genuine heartache and exaggerated melodrama was torn to shreds by McCauley's caustic, gripping lyrics; you couldn't help but feel for the guy, even if he was pulling your leg.
Deer Tick return to Portland this week on the strength of a new album, Born on Flag Day (Partisan). While sure to make for another lively concert, it's surprising and initially disappointing that the album seems so revivalist and straightforward. McCauley's lyrics have fewer barbs, and his delivery is less anguished. He seems more content with — and sympathetic toward — the tropes he used to upend.
Most of this, though, can be credited to positive developments: better production values, and the debut of Deer Tick as a four-person band with a consistent lineup (McCauley recorded most of War Elephant on his own). McCauley, now 23, seems to be taking seriously the responsibility of leading a proper (and very young — members are all 20 or 23) rock band. Born on Flag Day sounds a bit like a group testing the waters, but they've already stumbled upon a novel style: nervy and dexterous, Deer Tick have become a pretty mean bar band.
On opener "Easy," angular guitar chords and jittery strums give some Southwestern ambience to a rhythm section that sounds like it's on the run from the law. McCauley plays the vigilante, coughing up rocks as he says "Out of the door/With the devil in my eyes/Well, that son of a bitch crossed me once/But he won't cross me twice." "Little White Lies" begins as an anti-romantic ballad with slide guitar and shuffling percussion that breaks into a garage-rock-meets-mariachi climax, with the clever refrain "Please, let me be lonely tonight."
Aside from "Straight Into a Storm," a surf-rock raver that McAuley's delivery (always best when it's drawn out and, in its way, lilting) can't quite keep up with, the band's easy confidence only wavers when extra musicians are added to the mix. "Smith Hill" starts strong, until an overwrought string section comes in to juice up a broad, uninspired chorus, and "Friday XIII" suffers from an awkward guest performance by Liz Isenberg, whose ghostly voice isn't a proper fit for the coy material.
Oddly, it's the least-ambitious material that works the best. Bawlers like "Song About a Man" (written from the perspective of a grandfather who "drank away all the things he could provide," with effective parts for cello and harmonica) and mid-tempo ballads like "The Ghost" and closer "Stung" sound simple and effortless, but are notably fleshed-out compared to similar War Elephant work.
You're left hoping McCauley gets his heart ripped out or finds a little more fire in his belly before the next Deer Tick album, but certain his band will be up to the task of being the bloody knuckles to his sucker punches.
Christopher Gray can be reached at email@example.com.
DEER TICK |with Dawes + Dead End Armory | July 21 @ 9 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | $7 | 207.828.5600 | space538.org