New England indie folk outfit Deer Tick gets under your skin with its darkest album yet 

Deer Tick with One Wolf, The Electric Primadonnas and James Price Band
9 p.m. Monday
The Conservatory
8911 N. Western

John McCauley, aka Deer Tick, was intent on making it as a musician. He taught himself drums, bass, guitar, piano and pedal steel, recorded his own CDs and toured steadily, first in punk bands, then as a solo act.

In 2007, he released his full-length debut, "War Elephant," a paean to the disaffected misery of his teenage years. McCauley soon found himself a band, and last summer, followed up "Elephant" with "Born on Flag Day" " which he was.

McCauley and company sidle through grimy, ragged country-blues evoking a blend of Neil Young, Merle Haggard and Townes Van Zandt. McCauley's wavering rasp aches like most people breathe over a bed of guitar twang, whining pedal steel and shuffling low-key rhythms. Even as he and his bandmates were releasing "Flag Day," another album awaited.

"The Black Dirt Sessions" was recorded early last year and is due for release next month. The disc surveys a troubled relationship in McCauley's formative years. He described its sound as "creepy" and said that dredging up those old memories was awkward and discomfiting.

"I guess you could say I had a muse for a couple years and most of these songs are directly influenced by her. The rest of it is kind of songs about death," he said. "It's kind of a step in a new direction for us. It's angry, bitter darker music. It might give people a better idea what we're actually about as a band."

Although shy in person, McCauley loses his inhibitions onstage.

"It's gotten me in trouble at times," he said. In front of an audience, Deer Tick's loose, wild style comes to life. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they're often intoxicated or somehow addled, and reliant on their management to keep them in line. As McCauley tells it, the group believes in independence; the members just aren't capable of it.

"We're just a bunch of idiots. If we'd run this whole thing ourselves, we would've crashed and burned already," he said. "But we're fortunate enough to have a pretty spectacular team of people that work with us, and definitely feel at times as though they have to babysit us."

Deer Tick's freewheeling attitude is echoed by the musicians' love of cover songs. In fact, winging it live is one thing that's brought him closer to Chris Ryan, who plays bass alongside his brother, drummer Dennis Ryan.

"If anybody shouts 'Freebird,' we will butcher the hell out of it and torture the audience," McCauley said. "A bunch of wrong chords, and I sing the same three lines over and over again."

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