On Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide, Chapel Hill's The Old Ceremony feels more at ease than one could expect for a band in their position. This album is their fifth since forming eight years ago. In both age and productivity, this places the well-mannered, retro-leaning chamber pop outfit at a point where many groups that have enjoyed similarly modest success might call it quits. Rather, this is The Old Ceremony's first for Yep Roc Records, an N.C.-based independent powerhouse with a knack for marketing artists with traditionally sourced sounds. If ever there were a place where The Old Ceremony might thrive, it would be with an imprint whose reputation is built in part on solid late-career releases from the likes of Nick Lowe and Robyn Hitchcock. This would appear to be The Old Ceremony's fabled "now or never" moment.
Somehow, though, Fairytales seems to be The Old Ceremony's most relaxed effort to date, an easy-breathing summary of everything that has worked for them to this point. At once, it demonstrates not only how much they have grown but that they'll likely continue to evolve. In the past, The Old Ceremony secured a broad range of techniques into neatly organized clusters: Instantly accessible choruses and sweeping melodies paired with a handful of arena-pop gems, all kept entirely separate from slices of dizzily distorted pop-rock and murky, melodramatic ballads. On Fairytales, the edges bleed, resulting in a remarkably cohesive collection that thrills with juxtaposition.
To wit, the album opens with a swaggering, old-school rock 'n' roll riff, embellished by tasteful glockenspiel twinkles on "Star by Star." But as singer Django Haskins' fortune-telling narrative becomes more complex, the music follows suit. Glockenspiel takes over in the bridge for an oddball solo that would fit Tom Waits' left-field vaudeville. By the song's end, Haskins' guitar has contorted into an effects-rich spectacle that unites intensity and uplift.
But The Old Ceremony never forces anything, allowing the record's arrangements to graft naturally onto Haskins' rewarding subtlety. "Elsinore," a delicate, regret-filled rumination on the act of moving on, is backed by an understated mix of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and organ. It blows like a breeze down life's curvy road. "The Royal We" is a biting bit of political satire that skewers the isolation of the wealthy. "The Royal We decided to declare a holiday," Haskins sings over a perfectly pleasant country-pop shuffle, "for floating down the Amazon and shooting discs of clay." But the frustrations of the underclass find voice near the finale, thanks to a psych-blasted guitar solo.
Occasionally, the relaxed nature of the album leads to less thrilling results, spare arrangements that lull the listener without providing necessary jolts to the senses. But as a whole, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide is the most convincing collection in The Old Ceremony's catalog, proof that the past, present and future of this veteran ensemble remain exciting.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Three acts, back for more."