Smile Politely

Album review: Deer Tick, Divine Providence

I think anytime I listen to a new album from an artist I have come to enjoy I am always waiting for that “oh shit” moment.

Most people know what I’m talking about, I think. That moment when you realize the album doesn’t meet your expectations for whatever reasons. Sometimes it’s evident immediately and sometimes it sneaks up on you: either your hear something your ears dislike right away or you get through an entire listen and think, ‘That was nothing special.’

The reason I think most people reading this will be familiar with the “oh shit” moment is because we all have bands whose songs we know by heart and whose back catalog we consider sacrosanct. Maybe the lyrics described something we’re going through, or maybe seeing the band live got our oxytocin flowing. Whatever caused it, we have put up these artists on a pedestal and forever we expect everything they do to be as spectacular and awesome without ever being the same.

I realize the folly in this system, and I hate myself for continually feeling let down by bands. But, dammit, I can’t help it.

The latest victim (an awful self-aggrandizing word choice, I recognize) of my fickle ears is Deer Tick. The Rhode Island four-piece’s first three albums (all primarily written by lead singer John McCauley) blew me away. The way they used classic rock ‘n’ roll (like Buddy Holly, none of that AC/DC junk), folk, country and punk to create their own style not only connected with me, but also inspired me.

There was simplicity to Deer Tick’s instrumentation and honesty in McCauley’s lyrics. Combined with his young Tom Waits howl and ferocious stage presence, well, I never stood a chance.

The “oh shit” moment on their latest album, Divine Providence, didn’t happen right away. The first two songs, “The Bump” and “Funny Word,” aren’t so bad. They have good tempo to them, they retain the same troubled narrator I’ve enjoyed previously and they were just different enough to make me think this album could stand out a bit from their other albums but not so much as to feel completely foreign.

Then the “oh shit” moment happened. It was immediate and it soured the rest of the album. “Let’s All Go To The Bar,” the third song on the album, changed everything. I don’t know what exactly Deer Tick were going for – a party song, perhaps – but it failed.

Then, when I thought things might look up, I hear a voice that doesn’t belong to McCauley. I shouldn’t hate this as much as I do, but when McCauley is not singing (there are three tracks total on Divine Providence with either guitarist Ian O’Neil or drummer Dennis Ryan singing) Deer Tick simply isn’t the same band. The other voices on the album are fine, but they aren’t very original. In fact, on those songs I could swear I’m listening to Steel Train, whose music is okay, but not something I love and not something I want to hear on a Deer Tick album.

I wish those were my only issues with Divine Providence, as they are damning enough, unfortunately it does not get better. This album is supposed to sound closer to their live sound, which is loud and wild. Since I love Deer Tick’s live show this should be great, but the production is entirely too polished and smooth for my taste. The vocals and solos protrude from the rest of the instrumentation, they are louder, more defined and glistening with studio polish: anything but live performance-like.

One element of the Deer Tick live experience that is captured very well is the punk rock energy the band has. But even this seems to fail on Divine Providence. Instead of being raucous and wild the songs, with a few exceptions, just chug along at a blistering speed that doesn’t show off the talent of the musicians as well as past albums did.

I may be grading Divine Providence a bit harshly because of my affection for Deer Tick’s previous work, but I truly feel the band took two steps backward with this album. There is no inventiveness on this album: no folk-rockabilly (i.e. “Straight into a Storm”) nor any songs with reggae bass and stride piano (“Mange”). Divine Providence moves Deer Tick away from their uniqueness and more toward the static of a thousand other forgettable bands making albums today.

Those unfamiliar with Deer Tick may not feel the same; they may not even understand why this album is disappointing. But those who have heard and seen and experienced Deer Tick’s music may still be shaking their head, thinking, “oh shit.”

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