By: Dennis Cook
Some folks just pop out fully formed, knowing more than we'll likely learn in a lifetime from the time they wrap their heads around language, and better still, imparting that ingrown wisdom in songs that feel so natural they might as well have been scooped up in a cupped hand from a crystal stream. Deer Tick (aka John McCauley with a little help from his friends like Nat Baldwin) skips in with a Woody Guthrie bounce, telling us, "I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet/ but I am broken and torn with hills at my feet/ And with your purest light, why don't you shine on me/ Well I should have been an angel but I'm too dumb to speak." These words arrive in a voice as cracked as Oklahoma soil in a drought year and sweet as any harvest pulled from such land. That McCauley is all of 22-years-old (and just 19 at the time of these recordings) comes as a total surprise, but like I said, some folks just arrive all gestated and rarin' to go, as Deer Tick's recently reissued debut, War Elephant (released November 11 on Partisan Records), amply exhibits.
Now a full-fledged band (and a good one), this is a snapshot of McCauley's earliest bedsit ruminations and freewheeling rambler anthems (originally released in a tiny independent lot in September '07). No, he's not the "new Dylan" (whatever that means) but these 14 tracks show the same kind of flashing genius and freshness one picks up on in early Zimmerman. So rapid is his flow, so bounteously poured out his gifts, that one suspects a mild form of creative possession took place during the recording process. There are lifetimes of experience and insight to "Ashamed," "Not So Dense" and "Christ Jesus," which is balanced by the barroom rattle of "Spend The Night," the hayride romance of "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" and the general smiling tenacity grinning up from his verses and streaming melodies. When he plugs in, as on "Standing At The Threshold," he's equally convincing as his more strummy reveries. It's a bit like hearing Manuel and Robertson embrace inside one young soul while Hank Williams roasts marshmallows at the campfire by his side. War Elephant feels like a gathering of old souls, a shindig for true grit songwriters and bindle packin' wanderers, and one has no problem believing McCauley would be warmly embraced by his ancestors at this weenie roast.
What keeps this from being some starry-eyed retro genuflect is McCauley's restlessness and ear for the modern swing of things ("Long Time" is an AOR-FM hit waiting to happen, fully capable of snuggling up to contemporary Tom Petty, Springsteen and other mainstays). His woodshedding process has produced an initial body of work strong enough to support a rich, varied career. There's the slice of truth to his tunes, each tumbler given serration by his perfectly imperfect voice. Tiny brushes of violin, bowed double bass and electric piano keep things colorful, but the focus will likely remain the humming, humanizing landscapes opened up by his songs. This is the arrival of a serious new artist that stirs massive excitement for what lies just around the corner. For now, he sends us off with a sprightly melancholy read of Anthony Newley & Lesley Bricusse's "What Kind of Fool Am I?" that neatly echoes "Good Night," Ringo's parting shot on The White Album. It's a hell of a final note and one that makes me want to hug McCauley until he squirms a bit.
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