A hodgepodge this one. Mayonnaise is split three ways: between 4 “alternate versions” of songs from the band’s 2017 Deer Tick Vol. 1, 4 cover versions of other artist’s songs, and 5 originals. Like the condiments of the album’s title and cover, and Vol. 1 and2’s covers too, the album’s clearly intended as an embellishment rather than a main course. It’s a mishmash experiment rather than a straightforward album, the likes of which they haven’t released since 2013’s Negativity.
Let’s deal with the “alternate versions” first”: they’re pointless. Deer Tick were right to intuit that the songs from Vol. 1 from their double release in 2017 were the ones to need more work on them, the songs on Vol. 2 being fine roots rockers culminating in the rapid-fire “Mr. Nothing Gets Worse”, perhaps their most exciting moment on record. Vol. 1 was a tepid collection of folksy downbeat mulling. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that Deer Tick would use Mayonnaise as an opportunity to electrify them into life with tougher instrumentation and more passion, as Conor Oberst did on Salutations, for instance. But actually the songs still sound limp, really not substantially changed at all, using tuneless acoustic guitar picking to create a folksy vibe that sadly isn’t substantial enough. Only on the closing “Cocktail” is there significant difference, with Spencer Cullum from Steelism coming in to provide effective pedal steel counterpoint to the melody, which was originally provided by keyboard. “Limp Right Back”, “End of the World”, and “Doomed from the Start” can be skipped if you’ve already listened to Vol. 1.
Next, to the covers of other artist’s songs. These are of mixed quality. Much like an old bottle of mayonnaise, one or two of them could have done with some shaking up before being unleashed. “Run of the Mill” ambles along pleasantly enough, though its slightly plodding pace and instrumentation and tempo too closely mimics the George Harrison original on All Things Must Pass, without the ex-Beatles’ gravitas. “Pale Blue Eyes” is just too damn famous, and Deer Tick don’t fuck around with it nearly enough to generate interest (Weezer had the same problem with all of the songs on their latest karaoke album), so that its 7 minutes amble by uneventfully; even a sweet mandolin at the end can’t save it from tedium.
Yet “Too Sensitive for This World”, a Ben Vaughn song, is sensitive done right. Its subtle harmonies and “Crazy Love”-style chord pattern combine with John McCauley’s trembling lead vocals to create a gospel R&B feel worthy of Van Morrison. As such, its melodramatic lyrics are given sympathetic yet not bombastic support. And “White City”, a Pogues cover, thrashes with all the fury of the Irish sea in winter, and as such does Shane McGowan proud. McCauley tries a slight Irish lilt in his vocals, imitating McGowan a little too closely for comfort, so that homage occasionally tips into pastiche. But the band still kill it.
The band might not kill it all the way through Mayonnaise, but they do on the originals. They continue their tradition of opening brilliantly with “Bluesboy” here, a dirge-like blues with electric guitar notes that sound like they’re descending into hell, until a solo suddenly erupts out of them and injects the music with life force, and lyrics that mine McCauley’s trademark raw howls for all they’re worth. “Old Lady” is a pleasant, sunny, piano-dominated acoustic song with drums that pound a hard triplet of emotion after the title phrase is uttered in each chorus, like the beat of the narrator’s heart as he thinks about his old lady. It’s a continuation of Deer Tick’s affinity for the older generation that began with “Song About a Man” on 2009’s Born on Flag Day.
This affinity presumably comes from their interest in old musical styles, from country to blues via rock & roll. They love the old music of the U.S.A. as much as the old people. And the roots rockers in these old musical veins on Mayonnaise are as strong as they’ve ever been, Deer Tick being an incredibly tight band. “Hey! Yeah!” in particular rocks with precision, its riffs in all the right places without being overwhelming.
If this had been a 6 or 7 track EP, with all of their originals (bar the useless instrumental “Memphis Chair”) plus the 2 strong cover versions and perhaps “Cocktail”, Mayonnaise would have been an enjoyably light condiment. Instead, at 49 minutes it feels a little too bloated to justify its hodgepodge. When’s the next full album of originals coming along, boys?