Deer Tick's War Elephant, the maiden release from Houston's Feow!, the label founded by itinerant chanteuse Jana Hunter and Bring Back the Guns frontman Matt Brownlie, is a vehicle for Baltimore singer and songwriter John McCauley. It plays interestingly with genre, approaching country from a freak-folk perspective, and its mix of rootsiness and esoterica is intriguingly Beat. McCauley's most striking feature, however, is his voice, a nasal, astringent croak so sharp and strong it completely dominates the record. Similar to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, McCauley's voice has uncommon clarity and authority that's almost religious. Unfortunately, it's often quite harsh, especially on first listen; McCauley's range and tonal vocabulary are both severely, almost painfully limited. These limitations are not hard to overlook on louder tracks like "Not So Dense," where his effortless command of the song becomes its own spectacle, but ironically, those songs have their own weaknesses: McCauley played almost all of the instruments on War Elephant, and he's a perfectly fine rhythm guitarist but only a passable lead player and a sluggish, unimaginative bassist and drummer. However, there are signs he may outgrow his limitations, notably the delightful "What Kind of Fool Am I?" Here, the Sammy Davis Jr. mainstay becomes a deceptively light freak-folk lounge tune that deftly showcases McCauley's singing, cutting the irony of its selection with a warm, sincere vocal.
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