"What do you wanna hear?" asked Django Haskins last Saturday, from the stage in front of Raleigh Times Bar. His five-piece, The Old Ceremony, was closing out a day party for the inaugural Hopscotch Music Festival. "Public Enemy?" he asked, replying to a fan. "Ah, fuck off!"
Haskins—and, presumably, the fan who shouted for the hip-hop legends who were set to headline City Plaza a few hours later—was joking. The Carrboro band Haskins has led since 2004 commanded a sizeable audience, even though their set nearly overlapped with fellow local heavyweights The Love Language, opening for Public Enemy just blocks away. This crowd, of course, was there of its own volition—The Old Ceremony's rousing live sets are near local legend, a calling card that shapes and defines Tender Age, the band's latest and best LP yet.
After spending a couple of years touring alongside a massive, revolving crew of supporting players, The Old Ceremony pared its membership in 2008 to its founding core: guitarist and frontman Haskins, organist/ vibraphonist Mark Simonsen, violinist/ keyboardist Gabriele Pelli, bassist Matt Brandau and drummer Dan Hall. It moved, in Haskins' words, from "a songwriter's project to a real band." Each member had more of a stake in the music. That collective ownership shaped The Old Ceremony into a better band—tighter onstage, more seasoned and confident in the studio.
On Tender Age—The Old Ceremony's fourth full-length—their aim was to combine both of those elements by getting that live oomph on tape. "We've always had trouble capturing the energy and interplay of a live show on record," Haskins explains. "We'd get lucky here and there, but overall it's been elusive." After spending more than three years recording Walk on Thin Air, thanks to plenty of studio experimentation, the band pined for a simpler process.
"Because we'd just gone through the drawn-out process of making the previous record, we were ready to just let 'er rip," Haskins explains. "The last one was kind of a difficult birth, but this one just flowed headfirst into a pantsuit. Finding the right spaces to record in helped a lot, too."
The majority of Tender Age was recorded live at Richmond, Va.'s Sound of Music Studios—"an enormous, Abbey Road-like studio with 40-foot ceilings," Haskins says. The sounds of individual guitars, organ, drums and vocals spilled from one microphone into another. That's not to say the album is sloppy; instead, a looser live energy threads through the recordings while maintaining the sophisticated, cinematic sweep that's become The Old Ceremony's trademark.
The ultimate translation from live-to-studio, however, occurs on the three tracks that the five members recorded sitting in the spacious living room of Haskins' 80-year-old Durham home ("Durjango," he calls it.) With Thom Canova committing the takes to tape, Haskins and Simonsen picked guitars while Pelli plucked banjo. Brandau and Hall kept the rhythm on an upright and brushed kit. It's a drastic departure for the layer-heavy band.
"After six years of touring with an electric setup, it was the musical equivalent of camping," Haskins says. "It got us back to our roots of sitting around playing tunes." Those intimate cuts—"Never Felt Better" and "Wither on the Vine, Part 2," plus the minute-long instrumental "Cro Mag"—are breezy and memorable, easily among the disc's highlights. They're perfect for crowd sing-alongs too, though the band didn't test that idea until the encore of a recent Cat's Cradle show. Initially unsure of how it'd work (or how they would even be heard) in the large, 600-capacity room, Haskins now remembers those acoustic performances as "one of my favorite moments."
As those stripped tunes prove, Haskins' songcraft has never been better. With an adroit and versatile backing unit following his lead, Haskins' multifaceted pop benefits from his 36 years of life experience and musical influences. From the hopeful tingle of new love that carries the buoyant, organ- and harmony-drenched "Ruined My Plans" to the bounding sunshine and winking defiance of the reverb-soaked, horn-accented "Gun to My Head," Haskins has a touch with jubilant nuggets of optimistic pop. Slow it down and he's just as good: "Wasted Chemistry" uses subtle textures of violin and vibes to conjure an eerie aura that paints Haskins' text of a ruined relationship.
And on "Guo Qu," the second song he's written entirely in Mandarin Chinese, the words may carry little weight with most listeners, but the expression contained within Haskins' melancholy melody resonates. Haskins learned how to convey his thoughts and emotions through a song's melody and spirit after performing in front of Chinese audiences, a nifty device that serves to magnify the song's feeling when listeners speak the same language and both lyrics and arrangements are able to work as one. That's what happens when Tender Age is at its best.
Onstage at home, it's a different ball game, of course. On that Hopscotch Saturday afternoon, the confidence shared by the longtime bandmates led to an irreplaceable synergy, and the liveliness that slips from their records was omnipresent. As the quintet continues to move away from the measured pop noir of its self-titled 2004 debut and takes a step back from the surging rock bombast of last year's Walk on Thin Air, they're sharper than ever—an impressive, cohesive band, playing with new aim.