John Joseph McCauley III has a mustache that is almost always just a little bit too long, to the point where the blondish whiskers begin a coarse curl inward, poking into that upper lip of his and getting in the way of anything brought to the mouth on a fork or spoon or by cup. Bottles are unaffected so that's a point of no concern as the beer goes down smooth without any napkins needed for clean up. The whiskey swigs can be consumed with the same amount of ease and very little residue. It only leads to more of that sort of thing - this lack of complication. It's an enabling of the kind of imbibing that goes on to fill the nights and sometimes the days so that the most painful tribulations can be suitably numbed into vagary or non-memory, whichever it chooses to get reset to when the chips and drinks are slammed down on the wood. It's a choice to always go down the disintegrating and disheartening road of ruin, where broken hearts attract other wounded characters and start buying each other drinks, impressed with the other's capacity for hurt and for the old souls that they've all come to tell of or get their bleeding insides across in other ways. McCauley, who's riding some long-time-coming bit of popularity since his appearance at the SXSW music festival in March (an appearance on the inaugural episode of NBC News anchor Brian Williams' indie rock showcase of all things), is most definitely one of the finest writers of these battered and beaten ballads working today. He writes songs that are brutally specific and filled with such moving soliloquies and jagged lines of true sadness or immovable sorrow that's come from the mismatch of two innocent hearts. The hearts are never innocent in the sense that they've never done wrong, never made another heart take a cold and rocky plunge off a pier, but always in the sense that THIS time - this particular time - they weren't going to do that. They were being good. They wanted better and they had no intention of letting the present follow the past like all those times before. The character that McCauley plays - if it's a character at all and not just his life as an opened book of dark ass misfortune and pains in the ass - is one of the man who's been a dog and also of a man who's been dogged by atrocious luck, bunking up and falling for women whom he can't wash from his mind, but have found it easy to discard him for the next guy in line, even though he was good to them, even though he thought this was finally the one that could work. Even though he adds numerous elements to both his last release, "War Elephant," and his latest record, "Born On Flag Day," McCauley essentially makes classic country & western burners that are rife with the most heartless treatment of sweethearts and the most genuine reactions to all of that heartlessness. He is the king of lonesomeness with everything he touches, singing words that register in so many different ways -- all of which involve at least one person going away torn to shreds and kicking rocks sullenly all over the yard, then retreating to the tavern for a drawn out bender. He sings of true love, the great kind, and true love, the bad kind - and he'd swear up and down that there's such a thing. He lives through the manipulation of feelings only to tell about them with the kind of perceptiveness of a clairvoyant. "Born On Flag Day" is full of destruction and roses, full of embraces that keep a man warm through a winter of discontent and the empty hugs of goodbye that could keep ice cream hard. He hopes that the angel on his shoulder is right, for he's listening to her constantly, taking her for what she's worth, but there's always the outside chance that he's heeding the words of a devil dressed in an angel's garb and McCauley seems wary of that, worried of that through all of the pits and depressions. He sings, "This woman on my mind/Her lies stink the same as mine," and so maybe misery's just finding ways to keep amused. It could be, but we'd prefer to believe in something more uplifting. Or so we tell ourselves, even when the lonesomeness pores us such lovely drinks.
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