The relationship between an artist’s standing as a studio artist and a live artist can be complex. Bodies of work can find themselves ill at ease when forced to translate from one to the other. Multi-faceted, multi-layered compositions can seem laboured or insubstantial in a performance environment and its attendant constraints. Of course, the flipside is that a band can have a revered live reputation but find it hard on record to match it.
It’s the latter of these two conundrums that has long been the bane of those prolific peddlers of rootsy alt-Americana, Deer Tick. While their previous albums (count ’em, four in five years) have gained acclaim for their folk and country influences, they’ve consistently belied the band’s notoriously raucous live performance. Thus, when creating record number five – Divine Providence – they’ve decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed. Or at least bring a taste of their live show to their studio recordings.
The album-opening stomp of The Bump, when viewed as a mission statement, seems to back up its creators’ aims. With its howls of “We’re full grown men but we act like kids… we’ll face the music, the next time we roll in” underpinned by jaunty bar-room piano on top of the walls of guitars, it feels like some illegitimate love-child of Titus Andronicus and The Hold Steady. It’s a theme replicated on the aptly-named Let’s All Go To The Bar. It’s not big, it’s not clever, but this ode to hedonism seems to lead everyone in a boozy singalong with a knowing, wry smile emblazoned firmly on its face. Something To Brag Out About cavorts along like The Replacements covering Johnny B Goode, and the album’s more upbeat, carefree moments stand alongside some of the States’ finest whisky-soaked dive bar warriors.
But step away from that and the album falters slightly. Make Believe and Now It’s Your Turn are comparatively lightweight affairs that almost go unnoticed. Penultimate track Electric starts off hypnotically beautific before quickly becoming repetitive somewhere around the two-minute mark. Not even the addition of strings at the song’s end can reinvigorate and restore the listener’s occasion. Thankfully album-closer Miss K proves Deer Tick can step away from raucous odes to alcohol and deviance and still pen an effective tune. The breezy ’60s pop melodies might come armed with a chorus as subtle as the blitz (“Come on Miss K, wrap your drunken arms around me. Talk dirty, turn me on, let’s get going”) but also packs a Simon & Garfunkel aping tune that’ll become a fixture on the internal jukebox for many a day.
Overall, their aim to harness their live show appears to be a success, especially on the more rabble-rousing and downright fun bar-side calls to arms that pepper the album, fuelled by the heady mixture of snarled vocals and walls of buzz-saw guitars. It’s a shame, then, that the album occasionally suffers when the musical direction deviates from that mould, and has the edge taken off its appeal somewhat as a consequence. Given free rein to do an album packed full of straight ahead odes to drinking dens and deviance they’d be unstoppable. As it is, Divine Providence is very good rather than truly great.