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Deer Tick in Review by Jesse Alejandro October 15th, 2008 Delicious

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War Elephant

Providence, RI

You go to Costco and buy an economy-sized pack of gourmet blueberry waffles. As purported, the waffles melt into a creamy, fruit-filled mush in your mouth. The expiration date requires that you finish the big box of waffles quickly. After a month of eating the same delicious waffles every morning, they don't taste quite as delicious. This is the experience of to listening to Deer Tick's debut album War Elephant. Strong words and a distinct lead voice pervade an album best described as homogeneous. Whether you affix the positive or negative connotations of this description to War Elephant has a lot to do with another question: How much do you like waffles?

The first track, "Ashamed," opens with the clear guitar-picking, raspy vocals, and piquant lyrics that underlie War Elephant's triumphs. Lead singer and songwriter John McCauley's fingers and vocal chords work together like a conductor and his train, transporting the listener through a vivid landscape of broken angel wings and bloody, screaming throats. The song develops beautifully with vocal harmonies, a violin, and a drum kit promising a nostalgic accompaniment to McCauley's voice. But a few seconds after this musical confluence, the song abruptly ends.

A similar arousal and disappointment occurs during the next song, "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)." The song tantalizes the ear with promises via sweetly scented guitar line and sharpened vocal hook. And again the violin shows up to the dance late, wearing the prettiest dress. But the song ends soon after the violin enters, while the guitar line is left unchanged, never leaving its larval cocoon.

After the first two songs, the melodicism falls off considerably, leaving the listener without a tune to hum. Inexplicably, the lush violin disappears for most of the rest of the album, abdicating to electric guitar solos that ride the album away from its bright country beginnings towards a darker, crunchier sound. This leaves songs like "Standing at the Threshhold" and "Sink Or Swim" sounding more like Alice In Chains than Bob Dylan. But War Elephant never fully becomes a grunge album, and so it is stuck between Nashville and Seattle, in a bland, instrumental mush that at best serves as a flaccid accompaniment to McCauley's great lyrics and at worse obstructs them.

As the album plays on, it repeats its pattern of introducing pretty guitar lines and letting them languish in an underdeveloped morass of generic drums and electric guitar. On a song like "Not So Dense," with its softly defined power chord rock, this underdevelopment derails the listener's attempts to enjoy the words. The music just doesn't keep pace with the swift dynamism of the lyrics.

Luckily, the quality of McCaughley's lyrics and voice remain high throughout War Elephant. On the mid-album highlight "Nevada" (in which the violin makes a cameo return), McCaughley's voice sounds like gravel crushed under a walking foot, a sound unteachable and full of beauty. "Diamond Rings 2007," with its childish and bittersweet guitar pick pattern, projects the feeling of "nostalgia for the future" so desired among folk singers vying for iPod space on your cross-country road trip.

"What Kind of Fool Am I," the last song on the album, is a welcomed and inspired oddity. A loungy cover of an early 60s Sammy Davis, Jr. hit, the song employs a timbrel range (keys, glockenspiel, and heavily reverbed violin) that much of the rest of the album could use. McCaughley's Rat Pack crooning on the song is the olive in the martini.

By the end of War Elephant, you feel like you've been trapped in an elevator with a stranger for an afternoon: You either want to marry the stranger or kill him. And although the album's underdevelopment ensures that some of its songs will be one-time listens, overall McCaughley's talent and sincerity shine through. McCaughley's youth and War Elephant's bright spots make one anticipate Deer Tick's next attempt.