There's a lot to be said for having a unique sound.
When you hear a band like Deer Tick for the first time, you instantly get a sense of what they are. Or at least you think so. From their previous records, you find a kind of stripped-down folky, bluesy, rocky mix that is immediately evocative of the type of simultaneously despairing and appealing old-fashioned music you just don't hear very much of, even in this alt-country and folk explosion while still being twangy and at times fairly distorted. Even the rockin'-est songs on their first three full-length records never really got especially rowdy.
This is contrasted, very heavily, with their live shows. Where the records are for the most part very quiet, their performances are decidedly not. In fact, even the sad-bastardest songs on any of the records that happen to make their way into a set list are transformed from meditations on too much boozing to foot-stomping celebrations of such behavior, and to their benefit. Everything is louder, more frantic, and very much a party. I've seen a good half dozen or so of their sets in the last year-plus — including their now-famous all-Nirvana cover shows — and it's not uncommon to see singer John McCauley kneel down and drink half a bottle of beer hands-free while playing a solo. Those shows have been uniformly enjoyable.
Deer Tick is a really good band when you sit down and listen to their LPs, particularly 2009's Born on Flag Day. They're a great band when you get out of the house and see them. So when comparing Live Deer Tick with Studio Deer Tick in the past, you got the sense that the band approached the latter with a very serious and earnest work ethic, and that they are a fine collection of musicians and songwriters. But they just weren't fun.
Their EPs have been edging toward embracing the type of loud, id-indulging mentality that characterizes their live shows for awhile now, but the band seems to have really taken this to heart for the release of their fourth full-length, Divine Providence (out this week on Partisan Records). Perhaps the band realized that drinking and partying can be taken very seriously indeed, even in a studio setting. The first song, "The Bump," announces loudly that this will not be like the old records within just a few seconds. The song is largely about the band's lack of desire to grow up or be controlled, which could be viewed as rejection of their earlier filtered-through-a-studio sound.
The record continues in this way for pretty much its entirety: fuzzed-out guitars, screamed lyrics, an old-timey rock'n'roll sound. The themes of their old records are still largely there (except in one profoundly weird track, which we'll get to in a minute), but the band's contagious exuberance finally gets unleashed.
And it should also be noted that Divine Providence features the first Deer Tick tracks on which McCauley does not sing. "Walkin Out the Door," a regular ol' rock song that very easily could have employed McCauley's immediately recognizable voice, at least sounds like it comes from the same band. "Clownin Around," which is about John Wayne Gacy, definitely does not.
The problem with it is twofold: 1) Sufjan Stevens' "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." is pretty much the definitive song about Chicago's most famous child-murdering clown. Far be it for me to condemn a band for writing about the same subject as another artist, but "Clownin Around" touches on too many similar themes to seem anything less than derivative. 2) I'm not sure how it qualifies as a Deer Tick song. Again, I'm certainly not trying to tell them how to make a record or which members they should allow to do what, but the only reason anyone would ever listen to this song and say, "Oh this is by Deer Tick, right?" is because it's in the middle of this album.
That having been said, I would probably like the song if it was not on this particular record. But it is and I simply don't understand why.
Despite that one frankly strange departure from form, the album is really very good. Particular highlights are "Let's All Go to the Bar," a fun and self-explanatory mission statement, as well as "Main Street" and "Electric." The latter two are songs that, on previous records, would have been the slowest and saddest of downed-out-and-lonesome ballads, but here still have elements of the band's new, feedback-y studio style. In some ways, they feel like dress rehearsals for the recording, but again, that type of informality is welcome from artists like Deer Tick.
By allowing their attentions to wander, if only a little bit, from the more minute details of putting together an album, they've made one that doesn't necessarily stack up, artistically, to their catalogue's highlights. But it's one hell of a lot more fun and enjoyable. And really, that's what Deer Tick is all about.