John McCauley, aka Deer Tick, has been on a non-stop tour since graduating from high school in 2004. He often performs without amplification, delivering tunes with just his voice and guitar, an experience that gives his vocals the primal power of a turn of the (last) century mountain balladeer. McCauley's a singer/songwriter with finely crafted literary lyrics married to folkie melodies that sport influences from rock, blues, country, and pop, as evidenced by his cover of Anthony Newley's "What Kind of Fool Am I?." McCauley transforms the tune into a country waltz, straining to reach the high notes, replacing Newley's measured regret with desperation and agony, although the mood is broken by a goofy, loping instrumental bridge just before the last two verses. The rest of the album, originals penned by McCauley, is more straightforward -- tunes about lost love, loneliness, and heartache delivered simply, highlighting McCauley's emotionally charged, unadorned vocals. "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)" is a country song that balances a playful backing track with a lyric full of insecurity and self-doubt, a lover begging for another chance he knows will probably never come. On "Nevada" the singer is howling at the moon, once more wondering why the object of his affection has no use for him. McCauley's subtle use of pedal steel adds to the song's desolate feeling. "Not So Dense" is a mournful, funereal meditation on a world going mad; the grinding backing track and McCauley's shrieking vocals paint a bleak portrait of the dark side of modern life. "Sink or Swim" looks at the life of a troubadour and wonders if singing a song can really make a difference as we face the loneliness and alienation in the mirror. But all is not grim. "Spend the Night" shows McCauley's brighter side. It's a clanging country tune with a simple lyric that sounds like a jolt of laughing gas coming near the end of an album that's almost unremittingly forlorn. And while "Diamond Rings 2007" is blue, it's crafted like a commercial country song, with a strong lyric and a tune that weaves itself into your brain after a single listen. McCauley's raw, quavering vocals pack a bracing emotional punch. War Elephant's cheerless aura won't please everyone, but kindred wounded souls will be glad to take hold of its tattered hand.
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AllMusic Review by j. poet