The magazine that helped define alt-country ceased publication two years ago, but the No Depression aesthetic continues to produce bands that make hay out of their efforts to avoid the ennui of Americana. Deer Tick singer and songwriter John McCauley doesn't sound depressed on the group's new full-length The Black Dirt Sessions, and that's because they have come up with plenty of diverting tricks — idle hands make for bad rock 'n' roll, you might say. Livelier and more experimental than the run of alt-country, The Black Dirt Sessions questions the idea of happiness without being morose about it.
For all that, McCauley doesn't think much of modern country music in either its commercial or alternative guises. "I grew up listening to modern country, contemporary country, and then decided most of that stuff was crap," he says. "Then I learned that the old stuff was actually good. I've never been a fan of alt-country or anything like that, but I am a Gram Parsons fan — mixing psychedelics and country was a pretty good idea."
McCauley formed Deer Tick in 2004 in Providence, R.I., after he had traveled extensively as a solo performer. "It was a lot of fun, being young and dumb and reckless, seeing the country for the first time," he says. "I tried to bring a band if I could, but most of the time it was me with a guitar, playing in somebody's living room. The first time I played in Nashville was a house show — it was for a 16-year-old girl to help pay off a drunk-driving violation."
McCauley absorbed country, pop and rock 'n' roll as a teenager, but he also got hip to such well-rounded entertainers as Sammy Davis Jr. "My family did their best to turn me onto that kind of cabaret music," he remembers. "It didn't work, but when I got older I appreciated it. It's some of my favorite stuff. Sammy Davis Jr. was one of the first black people to make fun of white people, and he was a wonderful singer and a great impressionist."
The No Depression ethos was evident on Deer Tick's 2007 debut, War Elephant. McCauley's piercing tenor combined the power of Texas rocker Roky Erickson's howl with the drone of a lightweight electric lawn trimmer. His songs used creepy riffs played on electric guitar and elegant folk-rock structures, and the band played them with classic-rock simplicity. "Baltimore Blues No. 1" found McCauley singing about the joys of being on the wrong side of the tracks, complete with catchy licks and self-deprecating lyrics.
War Elephant cast McCauley as a beautiful loser, with full-band accompaniment. "These Old Shoes" demonstrated his light touch with narrative: The song's anti-hero survived a plane crash, an aborted train ride ("It was a no-go for this hobo," he sang) and an exploding automobile to get back to his far-away woman. The record also featured a weird, brave version of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "What Kind of Fool Am I?"
It was a strange take on alt-country, and mostly successful. McCauley's structures became more convoluted on the follow-up, 2009's Born on Flag Day. "Easy" begins with feedback before veering off in odd directions. There were hints of folk, rockabilly and a curious sort of garage-rock. The group sounded like a cross between The 13th Floor Elevators and America, with two-part harmonies softening the impact of McCauley's caustic voice.
"I understand that the first album is kinda folky, and Flag Day is more country-oriented, and the EP [More Fuel for the Fire] is kinda like tongue-in-cheek, with over-the-top production," McCauley says. "And the new one is kind of a downer."
The Black Dirt Sessions does contain some of McCauley's most troubled lyrics, but its level of musical and verbal invention is high enough to hide some of the pain. The record rocks more than its predecessors, and this reflects the addition of new guitarist Ian O'Neil, who replaced Andy Tobiassen before the sessions began.
"I knew him a few years before he joined the band," McCauley says of O'Neil. "Ian has a very specific style of playing that kind of took over, once Andy left. Ian's way more of a rock 'n' roll player than Andy was."
Whatever its genesis, the band's style on Black Dirt includes nods to various kinds of rock music. "Choir of Angels" may be the catchiest track the group has yet released. A classically constructed rock 'n' roll song that could have come from the 1950s or The Beatles around 1968, it's formally satisfying and somewhat mysterious. "They took my body / They robbed me blind / No turnin' back now / No use in crying," McCauley sings.
Much like the work of similar artists such as the Portland, Ore., group Castanets or Nashville's Those Darlins, Black Dirt documents a band outgrowing its influences and attempting to make music that combines idioms. In fact, McCauley and Deer Tick have strong connections to Those Darlins — they've toured together, and McCauley is engaged to Nikki Darlin. (They say they've set the wedding date for next summer.)
As Nikki says of McCauley, "He was diggin' on country music like we did, in the beginning. But now he's got a much fuller band." This more nuanced sound makes Black Dirt a major advance for Deer Tick. Nearly every song benefits from background vocals and piano, and the record demonstrates the group's knack for economical arrangements — "Mange" sports a lick straight out of a classic Waylon Jennings track.
McCauley is still pondering the big subjects. "I Will Not Be Myself" tackles the problem of self-definition and mentions the downside of giving up prescription drugs. But the band sounds engaged with the world and on top of their game. The Black Dirt Sessions suggests there's no depression you can't conquer here on earth, and that's just the kind of heavenly insight a realist can believe in.