Three years after The Harlan Twins' first release, and closer to five since the band formed, it still sort of vexes Carrie Battle a bit if someone asks who's in the band.
"Well ... James and I are definitely in," she says after a laugh and a wince. James is James Hart, the band's other guitarist and sometimes mandolin player. Hart and Battle have always formed the core of the band — and they're the only members of the original lineup who remain.
Greg DeCarolis, the band's keyboardist of the past year-and-change, is also in for the long haul; drummer Braden Faisant has been around a couple of years and intends to stay, too. Bass is where the real turnover is: Current bassist Madison Stubblefield is the band's third, and he's planning on leaving town soon.
Now maybe you see the problem. One of Pittsburgh's most beloved and exciting live bands — and one of Pittsburgh most talented songwriting duos — has had some trouble keeping a full lineup together long enough to make a serious go of it.
"It's been frustrating — but a little fun, too," says Hart. "Everyone we've played with has been really exciting to play with. But it's certainly made writing very difficult. And it's made planning very difficult."
The Harlans (none of whom, for the record, is a twin, or named Harlan) began working on their forthcoming LP, Old Familiar, with a previous iteration of the band, and they had to transition to playing some old songs with new players, while also putting together some new songs. A few of the tunes on the new album were even written in studio while the band recorded with Joe Bartolotta at Machine Age studios.
That might sound like a recipe for a fragmented collection, especially since Hart and Battle tend to each bring their own songs to the band, and even drummer Faisant contributed one of his this time around. But in fact, Old Familiar is surprisingly cohesive, a document that shows how the country-fried rock band has progressed in its songwriting and focus. The average length of the songs is down slightly, and they tend to wander less; Hart's soulful, psychedelic slow burners and Battle's folky ditties have decided to meet somewhere in the middle. Some late-'60s and early-'70s influences (CCR, Canned Heat) show through.
"I think that on the last record," says Hart, "a lot of the songs came about from an idea or a kernel that Carrie or I would bring to the band — and it would grow and grow and grow, then collapse, the grow and grow and grow, then collapse, then it would take a shape. These songs are all more directly and intentionally written."
As The Harlan Twins come into their own as a band, the time may be right for them in the larger music world. The out-of-nowhere success of Alabama Shakes' debut full-length, Boys and Girls, earlier this year may bode well; The Harlan Twins work with largely the same Southern palette, and on Old Familiar, they can more often than not match that band pound-for-pound in terms of powerful soul vocals and performance.
Of course, success beyond Bloomfield and Lawrenceville — or beyond Brookline and Blawnox for that matter — depends on selling the record, both in terms of promotion and out-of-town dates. The Harlan Twins have done a bit of both, but are still largely a Pittsburgh phenomenon.
As musicians hit the 30-year-old mark, if they're still playing music out and mostly locally, most take one of two attitudes toward the matter. There are those who throw themselves into it hard, raging against the dying of their twentysomething dreams. Then there are those who decide maybe their lot in life may be playing at Howlers or Hambone's on a Friday night while holding down a day job — nothing wrong with that.
The Harlan Twins seem to look at things in a third way, though. While they're ready to gain a bigger profile, and they're certainly poised to do so, they're not gung ho; they're also not resigned. Battle, in fact, talks about the dawning of her 30s in The Harlan Twins the way many folks talk about high school or college.
"Twenty years down the road, these are going to be the times that we look back on as being the best days of our lives," she says. "Some of the shows we've played have been such great moments; life highlights have happened in this band."
Hart notes, too, that he and Battle have become an inseparable musical unit.
"Carrie does well to dispel my worst instincts all the time," he notes with a laugh. "Plus, her songs are fucking awesome. If Carrie had her own band and just needed a guitar player, I'd probably want to play in that band, too."
"We really push each other," adds Battle. "Not only musically, but our personalities push each other out of our comfort zones and into more cooperative places.
"James has become my brother, for better or worse. I can definitely say 98 percent of my gray hairs have his name on them. But we have a great time making music together."