Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound Engineering by Patrick Stolley
Cannery Row is a far cry from the Rhode Island that John McCauley, better known as Deer Tick, has familiarized himself with. It's an oceanside front of land that's experienced the deaths of sardine canneries and has been immortalized by Steinbeck not once, but twice in novelizations. When one of the masters of the Great American novel describes the place though, despite it being an entire country and sea away - even just from a half-minded glimpse at the beginning of his fine tale of the Great Depression era - it sounds like the place that the raspy, young bluesman imagines when he goes to sleep as the unending, bottomless font of inspirational temptation.
It's the place that could act as his currency for a thousand yesterdays and even more tomorrows. Here it is from that typewriter of the dead John: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing." The John who occupies our thoughts here has a spray of blonde mustache across his top lip, assumes a foggy mountain countenance beneath his ragged ball cap and doesn't lead anyone on to think anything of any sort. He takes on no persona, but the man he is in song is heavy with the fallibilities of all of the most commonly seen people that one can run into. The translations of his songs could be watered down to the universal sadness they pull off, but that's a disservice as that boiling and whittling steams out the nutrients that appear naturally in what McCauley dishes.
The songs on War Elephant, the band's newest self-release is an exploration of those simple concerns of desperate times and the ways in which we're imaging ourselves breaking out of them and getting on with the way it was back when we faintly remember. He charters some of the most persistent and lovably humble and quaint sentiments that Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and many of the other country outlaws have survived on since they began. "Baltimore Blues #1" makes a man feel as if he's being sent out of a mouth along with the rest of the discarded cigarette smoke, but in slow motion, sailing out in a white tumbling cloud, silhouetted against those black backgrounds that they shoot all of those educational sneezing videos in front of. There's a wonderful version of a benevolent or just conniving devil in so much of the depression that comes through in all of Deer Tick's music. Maybe it's a form of the devil's human thoughts when he's kicking back and getting his hooves re-shod or when the gods go bowling and think of that great, Greek dinner that could be awaiting them when they get home. It's always funny to consider gods and devils having the mundane but fascinating mortal reactors that might along them to process the daily complexities and dilemmas that sometimes make us swerve off the road due to preoccupation or get blue over some snippy comment made by a friend in passing, by a lover in flight. McCauley just might find amusement there as well.
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