When discussing the Chapel Hill-based music collective The Old Ceremony, it’s not just a good idea, it’s apparently the law: You have to mention that the group’s name is a nod to the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony by that esteemed drama king Leonard Cohen. And, appropriately enough, there’s a palpable sense of in-a-strange-place unease across the dozen songs on this self-titled debut. You might also recall that several Cohen songs were used to excellent effect in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller back in the ’70s. On a similar note, much of this album feels like a soundtrack in search of an eccentric, eclectic film festival highlighting some 50 years of flicks. There’s the song ripe for accompanying the opening credits (“Shadows”), another well suited for the closing crawl of gaffers and caterers (“The Motions”), a couple perfect for Eastern European art films (“Ole” and “You Left Something Out”), and a pair ready for a movie where the music director couldn’t get Tom Waits (“Carry the One” and “Late Shift”). There’s even one, the jittery orchestral-billy number “Blood and Oil,” that plays out like a James M. Cain script.
How self-conscious you think this whole enterprise is could probably be measured by your reaction to the rhymes in “American Romeo,” the likes of “Paris way/fairest way” and “Crete/three winds to the sheet.” But, really, the album is much more about mood than words. To create this ode to moodiness, The Old Ceremony goes 11 musicians strong, with violins, cello, accordion, piano, trumpet, saxophone and vibraphone joining guitar, bass and drums and with everything getting at least a healthy cameo. You might expect dense layers, but instead the players tend to create a lot of space, graciously stepping aside to allow for individual moments like the suspense-signaling piano figure on “Shadows” and the vibes solo on “Blood and Oil.” It’s a wall of sound built with patience, not bricks. And atop it is singer/songwriter Django Haskins (former Regulars leader and International Orange guitarist), his vocals more often than not sounding like Joe Jackson’s American nephew.
Speaking of Jackson, this record’s yin and yang core, the slow-building “Out of the Blue” and the lively-from-word-go “Morning Glories,” could have wandered straight off his Night and Day–which, for what it’s worth, is also the title of a Cary Grant movie about Cole Porter directed by Michael Curtiz. For some reason, that seems like a trio that would get along famously in the quirky but tuneful cinematic world created by The Old Ceremony.