Jana Hunter’s Feow! Records label released Deer Tick’s alt-country album War Elephant in 2007, closing its doors shortly thereafter. The album was then repackaged and released by Partisan Records in 2008, with a new cover that could either be a visual metaphor or the product of a discussion along the lines of “Dudes…what about the bikini-chicks-with-guns photo shoot? That was totally awesome and hardcore, and so is your ironic mustache.”
Twenty-two year-old John McCauley took electric bass lessons for a few years, but he’s otherwise self-taught on guitar, pedal steel, piano and drums. He’s been on the road constantly, playing everywhere from VFW fashion shows to rooftops and, at least until recently, had handled his own booking and promoting. McCauley’s assembled three other talented musicians for War Elephant, but sometimes it’s still not enough.
Many critics have centered on opener “Ashamed” as the album’s finest track. Certainly it’s a great song – definite mix tape material – but it’s still somewhat tough to agree with this sentiment. While it contains a deeply resonating bass note, insistent drumming, a mournful violin and great lyrics that mix humility with self-loathing, it’s sometimes comes across as heavy handed and over the top. Second track “Art Isn’t Real (City of Sin)” brings back a solid beat, augments that with warbling electric guitar and pedal steel, and showcases McCauley’s gravelly vocals and knack for writing charming one-liners. Despite McCauley being green, some of the song’s hardship is convincing and contains some classic universal wisdom. Still, this wisdom sometimes becomes grating and reads like a shopping list of well-worn observations.
Quite a few tracks are about travel or suggest travel (“These old Shoes”), but too often lack detail. We don’t need redwood trees or purple mountains, only something a bit more personal. The band’s admitted Paul Simon influence surfaces on “Nevada,” which shares a similar style and subject matter to Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” though it lacks the poignancy of Simon’s masterful tune.
Other songs are disparate, but not disconnected. “Standing at the Threshold” features an organ and raucously shouted vocals (there’s more great yelling in “Not So Dense”). While these songs sometimes lack melodic variation and a balanced sound, there’s usually something to redeem each one, like the sharp electric guitar or soaring vocals of “Sink or Swim.” Other songs succeed because they sound rooted in a defined musical tradition: “Dirty Dishes” is reminiscent of the traditional travel ballad “Sloop John B” while “Spend the Night” plays like a tribute to Hank Williams Sr.’s “Hey Good Lookin’.”
Though McCauley has been studying the greats since childhood, War Elephant would have benefited from more tradition here; with more tradition comes more life, more sin, and more specificity. The instrumentation here is frequently very safe, which causes it to sink into the background, forcing the listener to pay attention to the sometimes hard-to-believe lyrics. Still, it’s difficult to think of many young rockers currently able to champion the issues of the early-twenties counterculture the way McCauley hints at here. Conor Oberst is all grown up, and punk isn’t there for us anymore. McCauley and his crowd may not be ready or willing to step up, but I think they could, as long as they confirm and expand what we already know about living hard.