Of course, none of these pedigrees guaranteed that The Old Ceremony’s music itself would live up to the promise. After all, cool by association does not equal great on one’s own.
By Blake Maddux
The Durham, North Carolina quintet The Old Ceremony recently unveiled its sixth full-length album since forming in 2004. I, however, had not heard of the band until a message from its record label’s publicist appeared in my inbox about a month ago.
As a freelance journalist, of course, I receive many emails from many publicists, many of whom I either do not ever reply to all or politely tell that I don’t have the resources to invest in learning about in advance of an fast-approaching event. If I don’t know the artist in question, something has to really stand out in the emailer’s pitch in order for me take on an unknown quantity.
Which brings me to why I am writing this review of Sprinter (Yep Roc Records), the latest offering by the aforementioned group of North Carolinians. Attempts to make an act seem cool by association is standard operating procedure for promoters. Sometimes this can seem tawdry or desperate. In the case of this album, however, all I had to read to pique my interest was “Produced by Mitch Easter.” If Easter needs any introduction at all, it should suffice for me to say that he produced R.E.M.’s first EP and first two LPs.
“But that was 30 years ago,” you say. “What has he done since?” Only worked in various capacities (producer, engineer, mixer, musician) with cooler than thou acts such as Game Theory, Let’s Active, Marshall Crenshaw, Dinosaur Jr., Loud Family, The dB’s, Velvet Crush, Superchunk, Ride, Pavement, Archers of Loaf, The Smithereens, Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, and Ex Hex.
And it certainly didn’t hurt to read that Chris Stamey — the co-founder of The dB’s — and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills appear on the album. Moreover, The Old Ceremony’s lead singer Django Haskins recently toured with Big Star Third, an all-star tribute to one of America’s most legendary and influential cult bands. Finally, the source of the band’s moniker is the 1974 album New Skin for the Old Ceremony by Canadian singer-songwriter laureate Leonard Cohen.
So, if any band that I hadn’t heard of was going to pass the well-vouched-for test, The Old Ceremony was it.
Granted, none of this was any guarantee that the music itself would live up to the promise. After all, cool by association does not equal great on one’s own.
Fortunately, any worries that I may have had about not enjoying Sprinter were put to rest almost immediately, and were completely dissipated by the end of the third song.
The 10-track set starts out with the assertive but well-tamed indie rock of the title track, proceeds seamlessly to the propulsive new wave power pop of “Live It Down,” (which features the seemingly effortless triply rhymed lyric “Reaching for a chair I swear was there just yesterday”), and then lands seemingly out of nowhere in Burt Bacharach territory on “Ghosts of Ferriday,” on which Haskins assures his addressee, “You’ll survive all of this if it kills you.”
Following this spectacular one-two-three punch, Sprinter plateaus a bit in terms of quality, tempo, and dynamic for the middle three songs. These are by no means bad, but none is among the very best material on the album.
Thankfully, the band comes back fighting with the David Bowie movie-referencing “Fall Guy,” which was premiered online in advance of Sprinter’s release. After that is the Simon & lower-register Garfunkel acoustic folk of “Hard Times,” the forceful, distorted electric borderline prog rock of “Efige” (which is sung in Greek), and the harmless and simple if not particularly thrilling pop song “Go Dark.”
All in all, The Old Ceremony squeezes quite a bit into 10 songs and 40 minutes, certainly enough to make me glad that I heard of them the way that I did. Otherwise, and this would have been entirely my own fault, I might not have ever heard of them at all.
Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who also contributes to The Somerville Times, DigBoston, Lynn Happens, and various Wicked Local publications on the North Shore. In 2013, he received a Master of Liberal Arts from Harvard Extension School, which awarded him the Dean’s Prize for Outstanding Thesis in Journalism. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts.