Monday, August 24, 2009

The Old Ceremony - Walk On Thin Air


Plate Tectonics is a perfectly crafted pop song. It has a killer hook. The lyrics are imaginative, equating the drifting apart of the continents to the growing distance between the people of earth, and then to the drifting apart of two people in a relationship. The metaphor is handled just right, and never becomes heavy handed. The song is crisply recorded, with each part clear, but with the group sounding like a whole. And lead singer Django Haskins puts just the right amount of emotion into this performance.

In various ways, the rest of Walk On Thin Air shows just how difficult it can be to create a Plate Tectonics. The best of the rest of the album offers more subtle pleasures, while the lead track, Til My Voice is Gone, comes closest to pop perfection.

The Old Ceremony impose certain limits on themselves, and create a fascinating sound by working within those limits. The band has the usual drums and bass, but then it gets interesting. There is a violin; one member plays vibraphone, organ, and synth; and the leader plays guitar, piano, and optigan. That optigan provides a major clue to where this band is coming from. The optigan is a sort of toy keyboard that was only produced between 1970 and 1976. The sound quality of an optigan is poor, but unique; it uses optical discs to simulate, (not very well), the sound of various instruments. Perhaps you have seen Fantasia, and you remember the sequence where the “soundtrack” appears on screen. This is optical recording. Now imagine a playback system that produces further degradation of the sound quality, and you have the optigan.

Similarly, the synthesizers used here are the old analog ones. The Old Ceremony is not trying for the most up to date sounds by any means. Rather, they are mining the technology and sounds of early 70s rock. This was a time when one branch of psychedelic rock was morphing into progressive rock. The songs here are short and to the point, but have that feel. And the band presents a remarkable range of musical settings. There are several flavors of keyboard based ballads, and rockers with a variety of grooves. In particular, Ready to Go really cooks, while Murmur is a beautiful mostly acoustic piece.

Django Haskins has a good ear for melodies. This tunefulness is enhanced by Matt Brandau’s bass playing. Remember, there is never more than one guitar, and the keyboards often play washes of sound, so Brandau has a more important role to play than in a typically configured rock band. He handles it beautifully.

Haskins has certain habits and preoccupations. Many of the songs start with one or two instruments, and the full band joins in on the first chorus; this technique is a favorite of mine as a listener, but here it threatens to become a cliche. And I don’t know anything about Haskins’ health, but many of the lyrics make reference to medical conditions. Til My Voice is Gone is a meditation on mortality where the narrator has apparently been told that he has not long to live, but the song is also an affirmation of living life to the fullest. The Disappear starts with a man calling in sick from work. And Murmur, on the surface, is about a woman with a heart murmur, but it is also a wonderfully subtle love song.

Haskins’ lyrics are little poems. Ready to Go takes the title phrase and uses it as the tag line for each of three verses; in each verse the phrase means something different, and there is a powerful cumulative affect from these shifts in meaning. Walk on Thin Air finds a man contemplating how much emotion to invest in a situation, and wondering if he let himself love to much. And the metaphors in Plate Tectonics and Murmur work beautifully. But just reading the lyrics to all of these, they can seem a little twee. Haskins has created musical settings the really put these over.

The production here is somewhat uneven. Of course, Plate Tectonics hits it perfectly. In addition, The Disappear features guitar, vibraphone, violin, drums and bass, and the combination is recorded beautifully. This one has almost a Brazilian feel to it, a lush romanticism that suits the song perfectly, but is never overdone. But Someone I Used to Know is an uptempo rocker that sounds fairly ordinary compared to the songs around it; it is also an example of an attempt at a bittersweet song that does not resonate. And Boy Prince is marred by muddy production; Haskins sings through some kind of electronic filter that does his voice no favors, and the instruments cannot be heard as clearly as I would like.

So we have one perfect pop song. A number of songs with great matches of lyric with musical setting. Fascinating musical textures. And a couple of misfires. Most bands would be happy to do so well. And I look forward to hearing what The Old Ceremony comes up with next.

The Old Ceremony: Plate Tectonics

The Old Ceremony: The Disappear