Christ Jesus, this is a depressing album. Apparently, Deer Tick’s founder and lead songwriter John McCauley, still in his mid-20s yet already known for what my parents call “music to commit suicide to,” held the darkest of dark lyrics from last year’s well-received Born on Flag Day barn-burner. That album’s ode to Southern rock and manly swagger didn’t seem the place for McCauley’s ballad “Goodbye, Dear Friend,” to a friend who died in a house fire, or “Sad Sun,” with its bleak existential elegy, “if heaven exists/ we’ll never know until the moment we’re finished/ and the few that care/ what have they accomplished right here?” Both songs appear on The Black Dirt Sessions, along with a reworking of “Christ Jesus,” from Deer Tick’s debut album, War Elephant, that the album’s promo materials excitedly promise is “more devastating than the original.” If sad subject matter and McCauley’s strangled sandpaper vocals don’t get you down, McCauley’s spare piano and Elizabeth Rodgers Isenberg’s sweet backing vocals on more lonesome tracks hammer home the message. McCauley’s preferred genres, classic country and indie rock, also lend themselves to weepiness; these are Elliott Smith lyrics delivered in a Southern (by way of Providence, Rhode Island) barfly’s croak, a comfort for anyone looking for a cathartic release of grief, angst, or heartbreak. Sunnier dispositions can still delight in the twinkling, orchestral folk of “Twenty Miles,” and the extended cowbell-and-guitar jam at the end of rocker “Mange,” proving that even at the bottom of the barrel McCauley is still musically at the top of his game.
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