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TERRY GROSS, host:

Deer Tick is a Providence, Rhode Island, act that began as a solo project for its leader, John McCauley. Now, he's gathered three more musicians to form a Deer Tick quartet. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Deer Tick's music remains focused on its founder's obsession.

(Soundbite of song, "Hell on Earth")

Mr. JOHN McCAULEY (Singer): (Singing) Life is beautiful, but beauty is a dying art. Life is wonderful, there's only so much you can wonder about. Before life drives you mad, and before nobody care, before life drives you mad, and before nobody care, there are only words…

KEN TUCKER: Deer Tick is an interesting work in progress. The lead singer who formed the band, John McCauley, is in his early 20s. He's precocious. He released his first album a couple of years ago. It was called "War Elephant," and he played every instrument himself. Now, he's put together a real Deer Tick band to flesh out his sketches of loneliness and fond self-regard.

(Soundbite of song, "Smith Hill")

Mr. McCAULEY: (Singing) Elbows on the window sill, my head against the pane. You've seen so many grow and die, but you forgot most of their names. So I fire that arrow into the great big sky, and hope that it never comes down. Unless you're coming with it, it's better with you around. I could drink myself to death tonight, or I could stand and give a toast. To those who made it out alive, it's you I'll miss the most. But tonight I'll see my sweetheart…

TUCKER: John McCauley sings in a constipated croon as though it pains him to try and make his voice actually hit the notes of the melodies he writes. It's a voice that carries its own inherent form of resentment, which is why the best songs on this new album, "Born On Flag Day," frequently sound both angry and weary. It's an effort to find the right way to express his alienation.

(Soundbite of song, "Song About a Man")

Mr. MCCAULEY: (Singing) How can a man feel anything when all he's ever got was sympathy? Take both your hands and put them around my neck, you're a fool for wanting everything. It couldn't be much fun being…

TUCKER: There are strong elements of folk and country music in Deer Tick's music, but the attitude is classic rock and roll bratty. McCauley frequently goes on about how he feels best when he's in the most miserable part of town. He's at his best when he keeps his lyrics conversational and at his weakest, when he's straining for a hardboiled image. When he describes, quote, "a curse like a knife," it's a phrase that could have come from a thousand other songs or a thousand detective novels. Yet despite and because of all this, McCauley's country folk has a stubborn orneriness that keeps you listening.

(Soundbite of song, "Houston, TX")

Mr. MCCAULEY: (Singing) I'll walk with the moon tonight, and cut through the air with a curse like a knife. And it can float around and I can do what I like. There's no good place in town, but I feel all right. All right. I ain't gonna talk like your…

TUCKER: Deer Tick can actually be pretty charming and enduring, especially when the band tries to approximate the half century old rock, country and rockabilly that McCauley clearly loves and rips off with his much brazen gusto as he can muster.

(Soundbite of song, "Straight Into a Storm")

Mr. MCCAULEY: (Singing) Is it wrong to think that it ain't no fun to be anything but second to none when I'm second to him every time that I come around? Tell me baby, how long till we're gonna get down? I'm a stranger now in my own house. I'm a brand new man watching her undo her blouse. I see my mama of a princess, though she herself was never a queen. So now I'm heading out West and I'm gonna get this body clean. Throw it out, make some noise…

TUCKER: I suspect that if John McCauley really wants to make a go of this Deer Tick thing, he'll have to come up with a subject other than his own discontent. The music is already there and solid, a frequently fierce melding of the Hank Williams-era country music he loves un-ironically. Even better is his own original take on how folk rock should sound in these hard times.

If he takes more firm control over his wayward talent for narrative, I'll bet the next Deer Tick album will shake off the doldrums and take off like a rocket.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album by Deer Tick, which is called "Born On Flag Day." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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