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(Sonic Blast Records 1008 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/15/2006)
The number of rock bands in existence is finite but probably unknowable. And most have a good deal in common. In fact, the similarities are such that while some are commercially successful, there is often very little that musically distinguishes the platinum-selling band from the band down the street, except for some luck in the music business. In the rock world, it is becoming ever more difficult to set a band apart from so many others on the scene now and in the past. With the competition being what it is, good musicianship is hardly enough to make a difference. It takes a distinctive sound -- usually involving some degree of eclecticism or cleverness. And this week, we have a band that shows their share of both. The group is called The Old Ceremony, and their new CD, their second in as many years, is called Our One Mistake.
The Old Ceremony, which was named after a line from a Leonard Cohen song, is based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is headed by a gentleman named Django Haskins. With Django as his first name, it's not surprising that Haskins came from a musical family. Only a jazz fan would name a son after the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Haskins was born in Gainesville, Florida and was surrounded by all kinds of music, from Thelonious Monk to the Beatles to Elvis Costello to the Replacements. He played in various bands in high school and college at Yale. After graduation, he went to China to teach English at a university in Hangzhu. While there, took to performing in a local pub, doing his own music, and learned about trying to make an impact on an audience who had no idea of what his lyrics were about.
After returning to the US, Haskins moved to New York, where he played at CBGB's with a band called Django and the Regulars, and released a couple of solo albums.
He relocated to the Chapel Hill area, with its own active music scene and was part of a popular regional band called International Orange. He formed The Old Ceremony in 2004 to highlight his more eclectic side, with instruments like strings and vibes. And in front of English-speaking audiences, he put his penchant for clever lyrics to use.
The result is an interesting and fun album that ranges from a kind of cabaret style to roots rock to hints of Motown soul to Beatles psychedelia, with words that bring clever turns of phrase and throw twists into the standard love-song formula. It's full of little surprises, but also has enough standard ingredients that it somehow sounds vaguely familiar when you hear it for the first time, without its being imitative.
The rest of The Old Ceremony are James "The Kid" Wallace on keyboards, including an old upright piano which insinuates its way into much of the album, Mark Simonsen on vibes, marimba and organ, Matt Brandau on bass, Dan Hall on drums, and a trio of string players. But Haskins does tend to dominate the group, having written all the songs and serving as lead vocalist.
The CD leads off with Talk Straight, which sums up the sound of the Old Ceremony on Our One Mistake. There are the strings and vibes among the instrumentation. The tune is in waltz time, which Haskins favors, and the lyrics are unambiguous and still clever. <<>>
Poison Pen is a kind ersatz cabaret song, also served as a waltz with a theatrical flourish. Haskins and company show their influence by the songwriter who wrote the line the band took as a name, Leonard Cohen. <<>>
The Old Ceremony highlights their absorbtion of the Indian-influenced sound of 1960s psychedelic music, on the song Get to Love, which they skillfully weave into a kind of retro-pop sound. <<>>
Also with a bit of theatrical flare is the song called Reservations, complete with more of Haskins' slightly askew lyrics. <<>>
As close to a pop song as this album gets is Radio Religion, with its gentle retro sound, clever lyrical and musical hooks. <<>>
With Haskins having spent time in China, he includes one song with lyrics largely in Chinese, Bao Qian. It's a kind of reversal of Haskins' task when he was singing English to Chinese audiences while he was living there. <<>>
Showing a little 1960s soul influence is Papers in Order, which combines an appealing tune with more of Haskins' adroit lyrics. <<>>
The CD's magnum opus is Prove Me Wrong, another witty love song that goes into full psychedelic mode with a Strawberry Fields/I Am a Walrus evocation. <<>>
Our One Mistake, the new second CD by the North Carolina-based band The Old Ceremony, led by Django Haskins, is an intelligent, creative and often clever recording by a rock band who tries to avoid the clichés and comes up with a pleasantly distinctive sound. In some ways, I suppose this CD could be considered a kind of male equivalent to a chanteuse-style recording with its occasionally theatrical sound, and the interesting combination of instruments with the jazzy vibes and the string trio. But it's got the potential to attract a wide, inter-generational audience. And overall, I think it has a high "cool" quotient.
Sonically, we'll give the CD about an A-minus. The studio approach is refreshingly understated, with the exception of one track with a distortion effect on the vocals, which always drives me up the wall. Otherwise, there is decent clarity and the dynamic range is OK for a rock album.
With such a endless glut of seemingly cookie-cutter formulaic-sounding rock bands, The Old Ceremony manages to set itself apart the old fashioned way, with imagination and musical ingenuity.
(c) Copyright 2006 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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