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Each new Deer Tick record has stood as a progressive milestone for frontman John McCauley and the Providence, Rhode Island-based band (guitarist Ian O’Neill, bassist Christopher Dale Ryan, keyboardist Rob Crowell, and drummer Dennis Ryan), but Negativity represents an epic leap forward on virtually all fronts. Recorded earlier this year in Portland, Oregon with legendary producer/musician Steve Berlin (The Blasters, Los Lobos, and last year’s McCauley side project, Diamond Rugs), the album is McCauley’s most personal work thus far as well as the band’s most undeniable and universal, their famously freewheeling musical approach refined here into a gloriously cohesive whole.
Negativity was penned over the course of a genuinely eventful 2012, an annus horribilus in which McCauley’s father pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and tax fraud, ultimately leading to a prison sentence. As if that weren’t enough, McCauley’s wedding engagement collapsed under the weight of his own excessive behavior and impossible lifestyle. Like any true artist, McCauley channeled his anger, sadness, and regret into his work, resulting in what can be safely declared his finest collection of songs to date, impassioned and interior and increasingly mature, both as expression of emotion as well as pure unadulterated songcraft.
Deer Tick – sounding as sure-footed as one would expect from a band known for spending a couple of hundred nights each year on stage – more than match the strength of the material by taking a more detailed approach than on some of the breakneck recordings of their past. From the sparkling baroque pop of “The Dream’s In The Ditch” to the full-blown Memphis showstopper, “Trash,” Negativity sees the Tick bridging boozy punk, AM gold, bar band blues, country soul, and whatever else catches their fancy into their own profoundly American rock ‘n’ roll. Additional sonic color comes courtesy of magnificently arranged brass accompaniment by Austin, Texas’s GRAMMY®-winning Latin fusion collective, Grupo Fantasma.
While Deer Tick have been rightfully hailed for their raucous rave-ups and substance-fueled fervor, Negativity places considerable focus on the band’s nuanced and tender side, with notable highlights including the wrenching breakup ballad, “Hey Doll,” and “In Our Time,” a timeless country tearjerker featuring duet vocals from McCauley’s good friend, singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton. At once heartbreaking, fist-pumping, and indeed, life-affirming, Negativity stands as a genuine high water mark for Deer Tick – a defining collection from a band driven by an undying faith in rock ‘n’ roll’s evergreen power of redemption and transcendence.
The best of these folks who write songs make you think about time, and I find myself thinking about time a lot when I listen to Robert. When he and his Boys are plugged in, the final hours of a night race along in a sweaty, whisky-soaked blur. And when he sits on a stool -- with just his guitar, voice and songs -- time slows down, as he spins tales of love and life and the way they twist together and are torn apart as we march along to some destination chosen by the great rearranger.
We talk about his folk and his country as though they’re hot and cold handles on a faucet. The temperatures are perhaps different but it all has a fluid consistency. There are quieter songs about making a home and louder songs about breaking a home, but they’re all about being here now . . . even if they sound old as time while still being well built for the future. All of it could easily be classified as country, of a sort with the great writers and players Robert studies and admires, from George Jones to Paul Simon. Why deal with something as cold as genres. It’s American music through and through. (Andrew Dansby)