I don't make a habit of putting my iPod on shuffle, preferring to hear albums from start to finish. But the other night, weary from the day, I did just that. I was rewarded immediately with the sound of a band I'd forgotten I loved so much: Enablers. Nothing to many but special to a select few, the San Francisco quartet gave me Joe, from their debut album End Note. The killer, kiss-off line of the spoken-word tale of kitchen activity: "Don't ever get old".
Enablers are an old band - not old in the sense that they've a dozen albums under their collective belt, and gold discs on the wall. Old in the sense that they, as men, are aged. I don't know how old they are, exactly. In their 40s, all, I would guess. They play with experience but never exude an aura of years passed, in the manner of so many from the Stones down to Seasick Steve. The point: Rhode Island's Deer Tick are not old, founding lynchpin John McCauley surely only in his 20s, but cut this music and it coughs forth the dust of where blood once flowed. It is old far before its time.
It's in McCauley's voice, in his croak that summons the spirit of late Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley and sets that addled snarl against an alt-country backdrop. In his lyrics, too, are signs that his is a mindset fast-forwarded to a place in life where memories are not as fresh as they could be; where photographs have faded and pages yellowed. He doesn't sing without heart or soul, as is patently apparent on the stark piano numbers Goodbye, Dear Friend and Christ Jesus; but there is nevertheless a question mark over the authenticity about it all, each line affected by tropes common to Americana.
But if this is more study than experience, it doesn't detract wholly from a collection that furthers McCauley and company's growing reputation as an outfit capable of melding the wrenched with the rollicking. Last year's Born on Flag Day was a focused exercise in indie-goes-country arranging, short on invention but confident of its strengths. The Black Dirt Sessions features material recorded at the same time as its predecessor, but feels somehow more complete - not least because the grit implied on Born on Flag Day finds form here. Hearts are broken not by gentle separation but painful, sudden force, and by dropping the slightly barroom blues feel of past releases Deer Tick have crept closer to a sound that combines universal appeal with the dusty melancholy of their Americana influences.
It's not the album that will define Deer Tick as a force in their own right, or McCauley as a songwriter on a par with his heroes, but The Black Dirt Sessions is the best set yet from this still-rising quintet. If they learned to act their age a little more, they could yet follow the likes of Fleet Foxes into the mainstream.