November 8, 2011

Divine Providence, The Deerplacements, and The Derivative Argument

Divine Providence may not be Deer Tick's Mona Lisa or magnum opus—personally, I'm still partial to War Elephant and Born On Flag Day—but it's still a hell of a record. For the past 7 or so years, the John McCauley-fronted Providence band have been building a loyal and increasingly large fan base around rabid, fearsome, and often unpredictable liveshows. Divine Providence is the band's first attempt at capturing that raw energy on record.

The first time I saw Deer Tick live was at a free show in Portland. The band ripped through three sets over three-and-a-half hours, playing both armfuls of originals and classic covers by the likes of John Mellencamp, Ritchie Valens, Tom Petty, and The Replacements. The set ended with a sloppy rendition of The Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends." Alls those beers and Jack and Cokes had caught up with the band by the final song, and instead of finishing it, former guitarist Andy Tobiassen kicked McCauley from on top of an amp down into the drum kit with a loud crash. It was an aptly disheveled rock and roll finish for a night that had me believing again in the power of dirty guitars, pounding drums, and narrative storytelling.

The rag on Deer Tick is their music is too derivative. But let's be honest: that's a load of bullshit. The Rolling Stones and The Beatles respectively started out as Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly cover bands. Much acclaimed bands on the Brooklyn label Captured Tracks like Craft Spells and Blouse are openly inspired by the 80s, specifically Factory Records' bands like New Order. And there's nothing wrong with that. If you don't like a band, that's fine, but to throw away a band's worth because it sounds derivative is a complete cop out. All music is derivative. Every single band borrows a chord, riff, or melody from another, whether consciously or not. As Oscar Wilde once famously said, "Good writers borrow, great writers steal." When John McCauley wears a Thin Lizzy shirt while playing Mellencamp's "Authority Song," it's obvious he's not hiding his influences. Deer Tick excel precisely because they wear their motives on their sleeves, however flawed they are: one minute McCauley's opening a beer with his teeth and playing Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls" and the next he's cutting out your heart with a dark melancholic ballad like "Goodbye, Dear Friend."

Whenever I think about Deer Tick, I'm always immediately reminded of The Replacements. The Minneapolis band—who after Big Star, may just have the biggest cult following in rock music—were infamous for onstage fistfights and debauchery, purposely bombing shows when major label execs were in attendance, and for placing juvenile numbers like "Gary's Got A Boner" side-by-side on albums with emotive cuts like "Sixteen Blue." The Replacements were a great rock band because they laid it all out on the table while simultaneously never taking themselves too seriously. Blake Gumprecht says it perfectly in The Replacements oral history, All Over But The Shouting:

"I don't know the blues, but Paul Westerberg's voice speaks the blues to me. Cigarette and whisky choked, it's rough expressive, and so human. His unpretentious ability to capture the drunken loud and insane moments with the quiet and lonely, the frustrated with the angry, the smart-ass fun with the quiet empty solitude, is unmatched... He's no poet, his words just don't make it on paper, but when he spits 'em out... oh my."

Deer Tick is a different band than The Replacements in plenty of ways, but McCauley and company are also the closest approximation to the Mats we have in contemporary music. McCauley's our generation's own croaky whisky-choked bluesman. On Divine Providence, he plays everything from drunken rabble-rouser ("The Bump") to classic American songwriter ("Main Street"), and perhaps most convincingly, the tortured underdog ("Make Believe"). Westerberg even passes the torch in the album's closing hidden track "Mr. Cigarette," which features original Westerberg lyrics and music by Deer Tick. I'm not saying you have to like Deer Tick, or even The Replacements. But there is a place in contemporary American rock for the juvenile, the smart-ass, the beer-splattered, the love-torn heart-sick narratives, and the raucous six-string anthems—and few do it with more soul than Deer Tick.

Deer Tick - "Mr. Cigarette" (from Divine Providence)

When I was putting together the Analog Edition Zine, I sent over McCauley a few questions about his connection to The Replacements, but due to space constraints, it never ran. Here it is for the first time:

What was the first Replacements song you heard?
My friend Diego Perez played Let It Be for me in high school. So I guess the first song I heard was “I Will Dare.” We were in his basement making prank phone calls at the time.

How did you go about picking "Portland" for the Middle Brother album? It's a gem of a track, but also a pretty deep cut.
Me and Taylor were listening to Don’t Tell a Soul a lot when we were working on the album. “Portland” is the first bonus track. I don’t know, we just kept listening to it over and over.

When did you start incorporating "Can't Hardly Wait" into the live set? What prompted the move?
We started playing it about 3 years ago. I think it was the first Mats song I learned how to play, and it was easy to pull of on the fly. I don’t think we ever rehearsed it, just kinda started playing it at a show once.

Do you have a favorite song or album from the Mats catalogue?
I like it all. It's all so different, it’s tough to pick any favorites. Its always a good time to listen to the Stink EP though.

Any chance we'll see more Replacements songs via yourself or Deer Tick in the future?
We’ve done the Deervana thing. Maybe we’ll do The Deerplacements.

Deer Tick - "Main Street" (from Divine Providence)
Deer Tick - "Portland" (Live Replacements cover)

Divine Providence - Deer Tick


  1. What a great post, Matt. I was a hesitant Deer Tick fan until I saw them 6 times over the summer. I don't care if they're borrowing from rock bands of yesterday because all bands do that. Deer Tick really does lay it all out there and with more energy than most. Their shows are unpredictable and wild at times (I saw McCauley light a set list on fire) and I feel like there are so few bands keeping that crazy part of rock 'n' roll alive. They're one of those bands that's more than the sum of their recorded songs. I realize that's not speaking to the music per se, but I don't understand how "critics" fail to appreciate that aspect at the very least.

  2. Thanks Jessica. And I love this point you made: "They're one of those bands that's more than the sum of their recorded songs." Well said.

  3. Big fan of this post - finally a positive review of the album / band. Keep it up Matt!