Releasing two albums on the same day is the sort of grandiose rock-star move that few dare attempt and even fewer pull off. So it comes as a surprise to see a band as modest as Deer Tick join the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and Bruce Springsteen with the simultaneous release of “Deer Tick Vol. 1” and “Deer Tick Vol. 2.” However, the closest historical precedent here isn’t “Use Your Illusion” — it’s “In Your Honor,” the Foo Fighters double album that featured separate acoustic and electric discs. The new Deer Tick albums segregate the unplugged songs from the rockers in a similar fashion, but more important than any gimmicks is the strong songwriting, perhaps the strongest of this group’s career.
The two albums have far more in common than the acoustic/electric divide might imply. Most of the acoustic songs on “Vol. 1” still feature full-band instrumentation, with the drums and keys keeping things firmly in laid-back folk-rock territory. Meanwhile, while band members flash their punk side a few times on “Vol. 2,” especially on the bilious, Nirvana-influenced “It’s a Whale,” most of the mid-tempo rock songs here would have fit in just fine on “Vol. 1.” After hearing the gorgeous saxophone solos on “Limp Right Back” and “Pulse,” not to mention the rowdy sax on frat-rock raver “Mr. Nothing Gets Worse,” you might think that’s the instrument that should have gotten its own album.
If there’s an overriding theme here, it’s Deer Tick’s transformation from beer-swilling hell-raisers into mature, married men — although maturity has not robbed the group of its sense of humor. When the band’s singer and primary songwriter, Rhode Island native John McCauley, references his sobriety, he makes a joke at his old self’s expense, as on the faux-wistful “Cocktail” and the goofy Southern strut of “Look How Clean I Am.” Elsewhere, his lyrics treat relationships with nuance and empathy, whether he’s offering support to a friend on “Jumpstarting” or digging into regret on “Sea of Clouds.” Even “Me and My Man,” which drummer Dennis Ryan wrote from a dog’s perspective, is endearing in its cornball sweetness.
Like their lovable-loser role model Paul Westerberg, McCauley and company have largely shed the scruffy angst of their youth in favor of sturdy, reliable roots-rock. It’s a style that suits Deer Tick much more comfortably than the rebel poses of old ever did, making “Deer Tick Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2” the rare double helping that doesn’t feel excessive or bloated. They’ve got the tunes; whether they’re acoustic or electric is beside the point.