Deer Tick seems destined for knee-jerk adulation and criticism. NPR dads who rock Steve Earle in the Prius, college radio kids with Gram Parsons on their iPods, and fratties who’ll always love a soul-baring singer with a cigarette-wearied voice will flock as one to the band’s next outdoor concert. However, anyone resistant to John Joseph McCauley III’s brodown can easily Google “Deer Tick” and snark at his ersatz down-home trappings (dig those ironic Confederate flag bathing trunks on your website!), invoking the eons-old authenticity complaint against the Providence native.
The title of Deer Tick’s sophomore effort, Born On Flag Day, can be interpreted as either a loving hat-tip to Americana quirks or as an eye-rolling Big Buck Hunter-style ironic embrace of homeland lovin’. And here’s where you should say, “But no country is authentic!” (or “Who cares if Brian Williams adores Deer Tick, what matters is McCauley’s songwriting!”) But honestly, at this point, country rock is the most unobjectionable music one can make. Float a slide guitar over a crunchy rhythm guitar, brush those cymbals, rasp some beery wisdom (“It couldn’t be much fun bein’ a millionaire to one / Cuz a million’s just a million of one thing”), and if the chord progression works, the song will probably speak to the heart of at least one person who hears it after precisely the right number of drinks.
True to form, Born on Flag Day has finger-picked ballads (“Song About a Man”), shitkickers (“Straight Into a Storm”), and a cover of a standard (“Goodnight Irene” appears as a hidden track, with haphazard maracas and opening beer-can sound effects). McCauley writes within genre, embraces its trappings, and emerges with completely acceptable results.
Some songs on McCauley’s first album as Deer Tick, War Elephant, sounded like vaguely country-tinged indie rock written by a former Bright Eyes fan, particularly its hit “Dirty Dishes.” Flag Day, however, comes off more like a lesser Uncle Tupelo album – lesser, because it lacks entirely the ferocity and earnestness that gave Tweedy and Farrar’s questionable rootsiness a true depth.