Ian O’Neil is a musician and artist who plays with Deer Tick, Happiness, and by himself. He lives in Providence, RI. (Photo Credit: Shoji Van Kuzumi)
Hear First is Talkhouse’s series of album premieres. Along with streams of upcoming albums — today’s is Ian O’Neil’s Ten Years of It — we publish statements from artists and their peers about the mindsets and impressions that go into, or come out of reflection on, a record. Here, Titus Andronicus’s Patrick Stickles shares some words on the history of the “Other Guy,” and on O’Neil’s debut solo album, which you can also listen to right here.
—Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor
Consider the “Other Guy.”
We see this person* standing in the shadows, the picture of modesty and the quintessential team player, yet exuding a quiet magnetism, the sort of figure that does not demand yr gaze, but will not surrender it once they have it. Having dashed off 16 bars worth of fiery licks, putting an exclamation point on a second chorus or middle eight, they relinquish the spotlight once more to the mic controller and resume their often thankless job… but the real heads know.
It is these same real heads who will leap to their feet when this same overlooked asset steps to the microphone themselves. The lookie-loos will take this as their cue to get another beer, as my sister had advised me to do during Richie Sambora’s turn to sing his forgotten solo single, “Stranger In This Town,” before we shared a Bon Jovi concert (Sambora had, by this point, coerced or extorted his way into singing “I’ll Be There For You” — I got a beer anyway, for I am not a real head). Those with a true personal connection to the life of a certain type of rock band, however, those who are really invested, the scholars, the completists, the aficionados, will know they are about to be given a treat, the taste of which the dilettantes have not made the effort to acquire. That’s their loss, and while the philistines are queuing up for their fifth $12 Heineken Light, the real heads bask in the warm of glow of a buried treasure, freshly brushed clean of its dirt.
Of these half-obscured figures, the all-time champion is Keith Richards, who has delighted heads both real and fake with classics like “Happy,” “Through and Through,” and “Before They Make Me Run,” though he is also an outlier among the Other Guys. His status as the true energy center of the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band is basically the worst kept secret in the idiom (despite the best efforts of his fellow Glimmer Twin), and you can always spot a basic chump too pleased with themselves by their eagerness to explain this to you. What’s more, his position as the more irreplaceable half of the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership (play Primitive Cool and Talk Is Cheap back-to-back if you don’t believe me) which birthed the unimpeachable (pre-1985) catalogue in question has never been a secret of any kind. In their purest form, the archetypal Other Guy serves the singer-songwriter at center stage and that artist’s singular vision, even if it subsumes their own personal vision in the process.
I’d rattle off the names of some of these Beer Break Buffoons if I could remember any (the less said about Creedence Clearwater Revival’s disastrous attempt at democracy, Mardi Gras, the better), but, by and large, they are destined, if not downright designed, to be forgotten, the memory of their moment in the sun washed away by the wave of applause that greets the next song the audience actually knows. Far easier for the mind to wander towards Mick Jones of the Clash, who has been increasingly marginalized in the years following the death of figurehead Joe Strummer, even though the act of asking the common person to hum a few bars of any Clash song will invariably lead to some bungled recitation of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” “Train In Vain,” or the chorus of “Rock The Casbah,” each a more memorable, melodic turn at the microphone than the venerated Strummer could typically muster. Greater justice has been served unto the estimable Kim Deal, formerly of the Pixies, who, by way of her phenomenal “Gigantic,” ate Frank Black’s lunch so ravenously that he did everything he could to trick “his” audience into thinking she didn’t exist on each album following their debut; oh, how the real heads must have wept for joy when the Breeders not only outsold the entire Pixies catalogue by a landslide with their second album alone, but actually managed to refrain from dragging their legacy through the dirt.
Then, there is the most remarkable case of all, the case of Fastball. There are not many who remember that, before they rode “The Way” to Grammy gold, bassist Tony Scalzo, the distinctive voice of the aforementioned hit, as well as “Out Of My Head,” and the less-remembered “You’re An Ocean,” was once merely the bass player, with guitarist Miles Zuniga more hotly tipped as the one who would lead the band into mainstream success. Hum a few bars of the follow-up single to “The Way,” Zuniga’s turn at the microphone, “Fire Escape.” I’ll wait.
Woe, woe unto the lead singer who does not carry a healthy fear of their most trusted lieutenant — blinded by an unshakable hubris, thinking themselves invincible, they may not discover their proper place in the pecking order until the rest of the world has, by which point it will, of course, be too late.
Into this arena casually strolls Ian O’Neil, lead guitarist of long-running Rhode Island roots rock institution Deer Tick (hereafter “The Tick”), led by precociously gravel-throated singer-songwriter John McCauley and anchored by the sturdy but nimble rhythm section of doting cousins Dennis and Chris Ryan. In the years since their 2007 debut, War Elephant, the Tick has amassed a large and devoted following that salivates over their distinctly American take on old-time rock & roll, a remarkable feat in and of itself, made all the more remarkable by the fact that, when acknowledged by the wider music industry at all, they have often served as a punching bag for some of the media’s more obnoxious and unjustly self-satisfied “critics,” whose primary objective has always been to make the reader emit a contemptuous chuckle at their half-baked “witticisms” (I use the term very loosely), rather than to direct said reader to music they might actually, you know, like.
With 2011’s Divine Providence, O’Neil was introduced to the regular lineup and immediately ascended into rare air for the Other Guy, writing and singing lead on not one but two songs for his debut with the Tick: the muscular devotional ode “Walking Out That Door,” and the more subdued plea for tenderness, “It’s Your Turn.” By the time of 2013’s Negativity, O’Neil was even helming singles, specifically the chiming loser’s lament, “Dream’s In The Ditch.” On each subsequent album, O’Neil could be counted on to deliver one or two unassuming charmers that would offer a welcome pallet cleanser after the acidic bile of McCauley’s harshest songs, if not stealing the show outright, as “Hope Is Big” did so handily on 2017’s Deer Tick Volume 1 (a curious title indeed for a band’s sixth full-length, but I digress).
If you wanted, it wouldn’t be hard to assemble these scattered tracks into a sort of shadow Deer Tick album, something you might pluck from an alternate universe where McCauley, a very fine lead guitarist himself, decided he would be happier as the Other Guy, ceding the spotlight to the more-than-capable O’Neil, thereby offering the world a more neighborly take on the Tick sound and a soothing antidote to the oftentimes abrasive tales of ne’er-do-well misanthropy that have, deservedly or not, become the band’s calling card in the minds of many. Cap it off with O’Neil’s lilting and affectionate take on Lou Reed’s deathless “Pale Blue Eyes” from 2019’s Mayonnaise, and you’d have on yr hands the kindest album the Tick never made.
[ As a matter of fact, you can stop yr wondering, as I have put together this YouTube playlist, Ten More Years Of It, to prove my point — stream it here with the appropriate gratitude for yr generous curator. ]
Now, at long last, these shadows assume a corporeal form, and it is Ten Years Of It, Ian O’Neil’s inevitable solo debut full-length and the inaugural release on his own imprint, Athenry Records. There is a much longer essay to be written on how we came to live in a world where this talent, so far beyond reasonable reproach, is made to crowdfund and self-release such a document, especially considering the deluge of support, financial as well as emotional, which greeted the announcement of his Kickstarter campaign. This record would have been the crown jewel of any label’s third quarter release calendar, and they wonder why they’re all running out of money. Anyway.
Ten Years Of It is as affable and inviting as you might expect. The tempos never accelerate beyond a mosey, and, when O’Neil does crank the amplifiers to the point of saturation, such as on the grungy “Events,” where he demonstrates a scuzz-rock acumen well-honed in the tribute act Deervana, the effect is still that of O’Neil, bouncing baby boy upon his knee, beckoning you into his backyard on a crisp early evening in Autumn — there’s a fire crackling in the pit, tall boys of Narragansett in the cooler, and no one wants much more than to swap a couple of stories and savor the humble blessings which ultimately make up a satisfied life.
Indeed, beyond releasing his debut solo full-length this year, O’Neil has also released his debut child, a smiley, golden-haired son named Lucian. It stands to reason that, outside the odd observation that “it’s a beautiful night to get wasted in the heat” (from self-reflective opening track “The Offer,” as faithful a facsimile of acoustic-adjacent Crazy Horse yr likely to find this side of “You Don’t Know How It Feels”), the derelict dirtbag angle of early Deer Tick records is mostly absent here. To this writer’s mind, that’s just as well — as we find O’Neil happily married with child and McCauley himself living the life of Ryley down in Nashville with his own blushing bride, piano-pop luminary Vanessa Carlton, such a perspective could only grow more and more disingenuous with time.
Take the album’s most touching, heartfelt lyric, “I want a stranger who can play peek-a-boo / I want a baby and I want it with you / I’m hoping that I’m soaking up all of yr compassion like a black sponge,” (from “Our Debt Is Sealed, True Love Knows Fear”) and put it up against yr pick of lines from, say the Tick’s none-too-subtle “The Bump,” and tell me which life you would rather lead.
Fear not, though — the tender trap of the “domestic bliss” album, which has swallowed artists no less accomplished than [redacted], has happily spared O’Neil, as he leaves enough sour pickles on the edge of the dish to offer a necessary counterpoint to his generous servings of aural comfort food. Particularly, the creeping menace of “German Bar” should earn it a place on every Halloween playlist worth its salted caramel this year from Portland to Portsmouth. Throughout, O’Neil dutifully recognizes the hazards of navigating our cruel world with an open heart, sneering his way through uncompromising couplets such as, “In your restless little world/there’s a coffin for your dreams/you can taste the grief that’s on your tongue/and you spit it through your teeth,” from “Smart Enough To Bleed,” making fine use of the ten thousand hours he has spent in rigorous study of his eternal lodestar, the ever-acerbic Bob Dylan. Still, the listener will receive such moments as thorns upon the rose, for a personal philosophy that does not take such truths in account to build a holistic worldview can only arrive at a false and flimsy form of hope, and, as we have said, O’Neil’s hope is big.
Contributing greatly to the carefree and comfortable vibe of this music is the presence of the aforementioned Ryans, dexterous drummer Dennis and fleet-finger bassist Chris. Their chemistry with O’Neil, nurtured over a decade by the Tick’s endlessly ambitious touring regiment (not to mention their collaborations in Providence supergroup Happiness and the hilariously, though descriptively, named Ian O’Neil and Dennis Ryan featuring Chris Ryan), allows the seasoned trio to hit the sweet spot between relaxed looseness and surgical precision on track after track, while leaving room for just enough flash to make you notice their admirable restraint. More than that, though, you notice that these are comrades who enjoy playing with each other, even listening to each other (not a common occurrence among the everyday egomaniacs who clutter the world of the performing arts). One would imagine that even if these three were, say, longshoremen rather than rock stars, they’d still end up spending most of their free time in the woodshed, forever whittling away at the most perfect version of their rare telepathy.
I am reminded of the famous story from the Rolling Stone’s much-mythologized Exile on Main Street sessions, where Keith, put upon by one of his handlers or hangers-on to bite the bullet and record his own solo album, bluntly remarked (I must paraphrase, as I do not have any of my books in front of me, with apologies to rock’s most silver-tongued devil), “if I were to make a record, I’d just get the boys to come and play on it, and it would just be a Rolling Stones record, so why don’t we get on with the Rolling Stones record we’re supposed to be making now?” He would ultimately be forced into a version of this with 1985’s widely derided Dirty Work, so we can be grateful for O’Neil, as well as the Tick, escaping such an inglorious fate.
In truth, the Other Guy that O’Neil most closely resembles must be George Harrison, a man whose unassuming and thoughtful nature made him stick out like a sore thumb when flanked by the ruthless titans McCartney and Lennon. It is little wonder that, stuck between a rock and a hard place as he was, even as his own undeniable songwriting abilities earned him the privilege of shoehorning timeless classics like “Taxman” and “Something” amidst the faux-dada banality of “Rocky Raccoon” or “Dig A Pony,” he was still able to squirrel away enough quality material for his triple-LP solo debut, All Things Must Pass, to build its consensus as the finest of the post-Beatles solo efforts (the nigh-unlistenably aimless jams of the third disc notwithstanding, an F-side in every sense of the word).
So it is with O’Neil, who, even with the long leash afforded him by the admirably humble and generous McCauley, has been able to amass 10 very fine songs that display his particular aesthetic and ideological identity while maintaining the ability to slot comfortably in the canon of the Tick, whose fans will surely be tickled to leap into this heap. Hopefully, we will not have to wait ten more years for another collection of such quality, or, perhaps better still, the next album from the Tick will see O’Neil graduate from Harrison to McCartney. Whatever comes next, Ten Years Of It is a record that earns its title, the time and care taken in its construction apparent in every note, and this writer predicts that the converted and unconverted alike into whose hands it happens to fall will foster no small measure of gratitude for such a treasure — 10 years of it, at least.
Oh, yeah, and don’t feel too bad for the guitarist of Fastball. It can always be worse — the guy who sang “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger was the drummer.
* When I use the term “guy,” I use it in the gender-neutral sense that a YouTuber often will – “Heyy guys, before we begin, smash that subscribe button,” etc.
— Patrick Stickles
(Photo Credit: left, Christopher Dale Ryan)