Record Review: Emotional Contracts by Deer Tick

A sit-down with guitarist Ian O’Neil on a band coming of age


What began as largely a solo project for singer-songwriter John McCauley, Providence-based Deer Tick has morphed over the course of six studio albums and continuous touring into the realm of a legacy band, adding keys, horns, and orchestration into their sonic palette on top of guitar-and-lyric song writing.

Coming by way of punk band Titus Andronicus, Deer Tick guitarist Ian O’Neil found his way into the band while playing the local DIY scene in NYC in 2009. Since then, O’Neil, along with McCauley, Dennis Ryan on drums, and Chris Ryan on bass, have become a creative unit centered around the live shows people love.

It is that live atmosphere and persona that seems to lay the foundation for the music the band creates. Deer Tick strikes a balance between what people appreciate about seeing them live and what the band members want to bring on the road with them, allowing their songs to venture into new territory without straying too far from home.

On their new release, Emotional Contracts, the band stakes claim in jam-band territory with numbers like “If I Try to Leave,” a song that very much puts the band, guitar solos, heavy bass, and driving drums front and center, making space for instruments to explore and expand.

“At the core of our song writing is malleable songs,” O’Neil comments. “Living as a live band has very much influenced where we go with our music. We want to put our best foot forward with our new tracks and we’re lucky to have fans that come along for the ride. So even though we have an extensive back catalog, people are right there with us when we play them eight new songs in a set.”

Under the direction of producer Dave Fridmann, Deer Tick recorded most of the album live, but explored many nuanced sounds, tunings, instrumentations, and styles that set this album in a more mature and self-realized place than some of their past work.

“After the breaks we took and with John [McCauley] returning to Rhode Island after living in Nashville, we finally got a chance to just jam and write together in an open, collaborative spirit,” O’Neil says. “Once a week we get together and just play; we haven’t been able to do that in a long time and it’s really pushed our songwriting as a band.”

In between up-tempo, guitar solo-filled hops and shuffles, such as “Forgiving Ties,” “Grey Matter,” and “Disgrace,” Deer Tick finds themselves taking more introspective turns on tracks like “My Ship” and “A Light Can Go Out in The Heart,” bringing it all down midway with Dennis Ryan’s “Running From Love” before the brooding epic “The Real Thing” closes things out with an ending that could just keep going and going and going.

What stands out on Emotional Contracts is the narrative personal nature of the lyrics that creates small scenarios and vignettes residing in sonic landscapes that venture into varying terrain, all while remaining uniquely Deer Tick. The powerful puff of a tube amp in overdrive, the Strat-driven jangle, the rumbling, clean steady bass, McCauley and O’Neil’s voices, and the heavy-handed crash cymbal are all present, but there’s also an exploration in sound and content the band hasn’t shown us yet.

“A big lesson on some of the songs we’ve been writing comes from Lou Reed,” O’Neil begins, “that the best lyrics don’t have to rhyme, but say something real. We played around with the details in these songs to say what we mean and connect with people through specific observations and narratives.”

When listening to Emotional Contracts, snapshots and brief glimmers of Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, and Blues Traveler come into focus for the briefest of seconds, all within a very ‘90s context. The Grateful Dead has In the Dark, Neil Young has Harvest Moon, Mark Knopfler has Golden Heart, and Deer Tick has Emotional Contracts.

“We’re at a point where we want to satisfy ourselves first before we go out of our way to satisfy others with our music,” O’Neil says. “As our audiences age with us, that allows us to more fully be ourselves and create the music and sing about the things that matter to us.” For music, merch, and more, visit


Don’t miss Deer Tick’s end-of-tour celebration shows at The Columbus Theatre on November 24 and November 25.



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