Despite bearing the gruff nicotine rasp of a 48-year-old blues growler, Deer Tick mainman John McCauley was just 19 years old when he recorded War Elephant. A limited-edition run of the album gained critical momentum and sold out not long after its initial release. This reissue on Partisan Records contains a disappointingly misogynistic cover (the old one was far better) and gives a wider audience a chance to hear McCauley’s sandpaper howl.
There’s a weathered resignation in McCauley’s voice, and he matches it with some contemplative lyrics that occasionally align with strings and pattering drums. Opener “Ashamed” sets the tone for much of what follows, and it’s immediately clear that McCauley owes a sizable debt to alt-country mainstays such as Iron & Wine, Uncle Tupelo and even Ryan Adams. It’s an amiable yet unremarkable inauguration into Deer Tick’s world.
There’s a certain inevitability about the way the electric guitars kick in on the third track, “Standing at the Threshold,” with McCauley keen to show there’s more to his art than just beardy acoustic stumblings. Familiar folk, rock and alt-country touchstones such as Van Morrison and Gram Parsons occasionally surface, but there’s nothing at work here that makes this a suitable alternative to digging out Grievous Angel or Astral Weeks for the umpteenth time. It’s early days for McCauley, of course, and it’s not hard to see some latent potential in his work. He’s a capable songsmith with the nous to know when to drop a witty lyric without overdoing it, but his music doesn’t contain enough originality to really captivate.
The alt-country tracks become predictable as the album progresses, and McCauley suddenly takes a few divergent turns that feel like he’s trying too hard to show off his musical eclecticism. The Los Lobos stomp of “These Old Shoes” is pleasant enough, but the overwrought rockism of “Christ Jesus,” which McCauley howls his way through like a karaoke Axl Rose, makes for a particularly unwelcome penultimate track. By trying to add some ebb and flow to War Elephant, he sends the album wildly off kilter, especially because most of these excursions only crop up in the second half of the record.
The misguided show tune “What Kind of Fool Am I?” brings the album to an unsatisfying close, making the rote alt-country-isms of the rest of War Elephant seem suddenly palatable. There is talent and potential at work here, and McCauley has wisely recruited a full band since this recording. Let’s hope they can help him transcend the influences that are too transparently at work on War Elephant.