Two remarkable (and totally unrelated) new releases showed up in my mailbox this week. Though part of me just wants to applaud Sub Pop and Partisan Records for shipping their new David Cross and Deer Tick releases, respectively, in packaging heavy enough not to be swept away by the absurdly strong wind Santa Fe has been hit with lately, both releases transcend simple weather talk.
Rhode Island’s Deer Tick, fronted by the gravel-voiced young John J McCauley III, has released three solid albums on Partisan since 2007. I’ve seen a lot of bands chug booze on stage but, opening for Dr. Dog at Santa Fe Brewing Company late last month, Deer Tick was the first band I’ve seen plop an entire case of Budweiser at the front man’s feet and finish it during their 45-minute set. By the middle of said set—and this has happened every time I’ve seen Deer Tick—the group’s bearded, pot-bellied drummer looked like he could pass out at any second. What I’m getting at, however, is Deer Tick’s new LP The Black Dirt Sessions juxtaposes debauchery, despair, pride and sincerity in a way that’d make the late, bender-prone Hank Williams proud.
Utilizing piano and organ rather than the pounding drums and distorted guitar of 2009’s Born on Flag Day or the endearing shoddiness of 2007’s War Elephant (on which McCauley played all the instruments), The Black Dirt Sessions (Partisan) sees the band honing in on a kinder, gentler kind of songwriting that still rattles listeners’ bones a la creepy-but-beautiful Tom Waits ballads or Time Out of Mind-era Dylan. Additionally, McCauley goes “naked” on “Goodbye, Dear Friend” and “Christ Jesus,” supporting his creaky voice with nothing but a piano. And it’s pretty stirring stuff. No wonder old-school rock critics like Griel Marcus and David Fricke have been fawning over Deer Tick since its 2007 breakout.
Elsewhere, comedian David Cross—who has been seen everywhere from Arrested Development to I’m Not There (in which he played Allen Ginsberg) over the past few years—is about to drop his first stand-up album since 2004, and it’s a good one—with a caveat. Unlike It’s Not Funny (2004) and the sprawling classic Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! (2002), which were so brilliant they suddenly put him next in the line of great American comedians dating from Lenny Bruce to Bill Hicks, Cross’ recorded work on Bigger and Blackerer isn’t golden from start to finish.
What Bruce and Hicks usually accomplished—and Cross did this consistently on his previous albums—was the mighty duo of making listeners laugh hard and think harder. On Bigger and Blackerer, Cross repeatedly begs us to hit the “snooze” button (or the iPod click wheel) with poop jokes and tales of drug abuse, and doesn’t get to what he’s great at—making fun of politics and religion—until halfway through the album. And even then, after a killer routine about President Obama hanging out in his basement as a kid with William Ayers, the Reverend Wright and Kim Jong-Il, planning a way to kill grandparents when he grows up, Cross takes his stuffy Boston audience’s cue and returns to the truly low-brow stuff. And this after Cross’ long-running feud with Larry the Cable Guy…