There are a lot of ways to get away with facsimile. As bands multiply and ripoff-able influences become scarcer, the ability to twist and reshape tropes has become almost essential for bands working in familiar genres—short of coming up with something truly revolutionary, of course. Duplication can certainly come off fine when it's handled deftly, with some cleverness and a little sense of humor, but Deer Tick's The Black Dirt Sessions ignores both of these points, offering a muddy dose of soul-baring alt-country that feels unaware of how tired it all sounds. The mix of fatigued piano thumping and overstated gravity leave it irreparably marred.
Deer Tick has never quite crossed over from playacting into making a sound totally their own. War Elephant and Born on Flag Day were hardly original, with one foot in old-time country and the other in classic rock, but they were fun and raucous enough to shrug off those negatives. The band further flexed its alt-country muscles on last November's More Fuel for the Fire EP, which made the most of its short running time and probably stands as the band's most accomplished effort. To follow that by tackling the gentler edges of the genre seems like a natural progression, but the switch in dominant inspiration to more modern acts like Whiskeytown and Son Volt proves shakier ground. The result is energetic but mostly dowdy and unimpressive.
That said, there's nothing outright disastrous here. Despite lead singer John McCauley's nasal voice, the music hits its marks and the lyrics stay generally solid. The problem is mostly that the staleness here only points out how fully the band has adhered to old formulas. Serving as last year's pilot artist for NBC anchor Brian Williams's "Bri-tunes" series probably hasn't helped, granting the band a whole new audience while adding the danger of plunging them into comfy dad-rock oblivion. Despite their young age (McCauley is 24), there's still a definite strain toward classicism, but the drippy sincerity makes the commonness of these influences harder to ignore.
Elements like the honky-tonk piano on "Mange" and the uplifting guitar solo that follows go a long way toward lightening the mood, but they are few and far between. The Black Dirt Sessions delivers emotion baldly and with high-flown force. A focus on piano further leads to an indulgently bare atmosphere. The straining for weight is never more apparent than the plunking minor chord strikes on "Piece by Piece and Frame by Frame," which sound like someone repeatedly sitting on the left side of the keyboard.
The use of female vocals as an emotional amplifier on tracks like "The Sad Sun" is equally insipid. The worst offender may be "Christ Jesus," which gets religious and deadly serious, leaving McCauley to shred his vocal cords to ribbons in a last stab at solemnity. As a closer, it's a fitting summation of an album that feels far too blandly somber, ignoring the feel-good clamor that can make Southern-rock revisionism so much fun.