The Old Ceremony begins Sprinter, the Durham band's second album for the venerable local label Yep Roc, in a fit of anxiety. On the unnerved opener and title track, the sprinter in question is the racing heart of a man in the grips of a panic attack. The music seethes and retreats, offering an arresting start. That lapel-grabbing effect continues on the New Wave-like "Live it Down," as lovely Rickenbacker lines alternate with beefy guitars and a brawny beat.
Throughout Sprinter, The Old Ceremony balances the urgency of the record's title with an acceptance of things that can't be fixed by means urgent or otherwise. The anxiety lifts at last, then, on the smoky "Ghosts of Ferriday" and "Magic Hour," the album's centerpiece and a transporting slice of exotica that finds leader Django Haskins at his most relaxed. Haskins delivers the record's most unforgettable melody in a seductive, double-tracked croon. It is the album's mixtape moment.
That emotional movement testifies to Sprinter's range at large. A strong, varied set, these songs showcase the continued evolution of Haskins and a group of players who seem perfectly attuned to his vision. The Old Ceremony's last album, 2012's Fairy Tales and Other Forms of Suicide, hung together as if cut from a common hypnotic cloth. But Sprinter—even without its rousing rendition of a Greek pop song—engages the band's most ambitious sonic palette to date.
More than a decade into his stewardship of The Old Ceremony, Haskins has forged a sound wrought from old styles and an array of assorted musical elements. The result is often something he has termed "pop-noir," an apt descriptor for music whose particulars—vintage keyboard sounds, reverbed guitar, canny strings and woodwinds—imbue it with a cinematic quality that's sometimes understated but sometimes front and center. That old-world essence is apparent during The Old Ceremony's take on the Greek pop standard, "Efige," their first cover in six albums. Though a hit for Stelios Kazantzidis in the late 1960s, you may not know "Efige" by name. But it played prominently in Season 2 of The Wire, was sampled by J Dilla and has long been a staple of the band's live repertoire. As Haskins has already written a few songs in Mandarin Chinese, it's not a surprise that his vocal take here is assured and convincing. Likewise, the band finds a distinct groove of its own amid the song's insistent meter.
The spare, moving "Hard Times" is particularly gripping. Like Nick Drake during "Pink Moon," Haskins achieves a desperate edge by sinking slightly below his range on the operative phrase. And as with Drake, the chords tease the dreaminess out of traditional blues patterns.
As if to reiterate their range, though, the band strikes an overtly cinematic note for the closing "Go Dark," an oddly celebratory tale told from the perspective of a paranoid survivalist. Haskins is not always the most reliable narrator. (On "Mission Bells," he vacillates between automotive and riverine imagery, leading to irksome continuity problems). But here he offers the supreme authority of an omniscient narrator, fully in control of the image he wants to leave behind: "This is the part of the movie where the music dies/Just before the waterfall appears/Picking up speed as the rapids rise/And we are left, laughing in the face of fear."
There's that anxiety again, serving as the thread that holds together the emotional and musical sprawl of this nervy and nuanced album.
Label: Yep Roc Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Touchy subjects."