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Deer Tick

The Black Dirt Sessions

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Label: Partisan Records

John McCauley III’s voice might alienate as many listeners as it draws in. A nasal, gutturally jagged thing that’s scratchier than sandpaper and about as smooth as room temperature Natty Light, it’s a textbook definition of an acquired musical taste. Anyone who’s heard previous Deer Tick albums War Elephant and Born on Flag Day can attest to the uniqueness of McCauley’s dusty, Americana-ready voice, as the songs from both albums either succeeded or failed based on whether the singer’s vocals could carry them. Similarly, on The Black Dirt Sessions, the Deer Tick leader’s voice doesn’t caress songs; instead, it attacks them with very little subtlety and with little regard for technical proficiency. And with- like those first two albums- mixed results.

Such roughness sometimes complements McCauley’s strand of alt-country and indie rock well on Black Dirt, making what might otherwise sound like an unremarkably safe and backwards-looking album worthy of attention. McCauley’s vocals are at their most expressive on tracks like the elegiac piano ballads “Goodbye, Dear Friend” and “Christ Jesus,” as well as “Twenty Miles,” “The Sad Sun” and “When She Comes Home,” all of which are sung with an obvious earnestness and again address McCauley’s recurring preoccupation with distance, loneliness and mortality. While McCauley’s singing is still the dominant aspect of Black Dirt, the lyrics are more insightful and less overtly monochromatic than those of both War Elephant and Born on Flag Day. McCauley’s best lines – “raindrops like bullets on my fragile skin,” “I built a kingdom on second chances” – add some complexity and ambiguity to what is, like too many of the genres that inform Black Dirt, largely a lyrically unambiguous release.

But McCauley’s unconventional voice and a few great lines aren’t enough to offset the album’s flaws. The singer’s gruffly energetic vocal approach kills a few songs; “Hand In My Hand” and “I Will Not Be Myself” are beaten into vocal submission, with McCauley absolutely obliterating the sonic textures the arrangements try to provide. Other songs, most noticeably album opener “Choir of Angels,” “Blood Moon” and “Mange” – the last of which comes complete with a heinous shredding guitar debacle that mercilessly lasts far too long – lock into a similar mid-tempo pace that makes them repetitive and dull. At around 45 minutes, Black Dirt isn’t particularly overlong, yet by its second half it starts to feel oppressively so, and certainly far longer than its actual running time.

For John McCauley, Black Dirt marks another respectable release, but it’s impossible to shake that pesky feeling that we’ve heard most of it already, both in his previous Deer Tick albums as well as in the genres from which he now appears to be another in a long line of descendants. There’s no shame in a musician playing to his strengths, and clearly three records and a couple of EPs into his career, McCauley knows what suits him best. That doesn’t make for mesmerizing listening though, and much of Black Dirt substitutes convention and tradition for where even the smallest touch of risk-taking would count for quite a lot.

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