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Album Review: Bright Lights, Ancient Cities

By Brent Hill

July 7, 2014

Charlotte is often accused of ignoring its past, mindlessly tearing down old buildings to throw up shiny new structures. That’s not always a bad thing. It’s how cities survive. But if you’re intimately familiar with Charlotte, you know there are plenty of great old haunts basking, even thriving, in the glow of  gleaming new establishments — reminding us that progress and history share a symbiotic relationship.

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Kristen Hill

A lesson that at least one new Charlotte band, Ancient Cities, understands on their self-titled debut album. With 2010 Creative Loafing Critic’s Choice Award Winner for Best Songwriter Stephen Warwick at the helm along with Justin Fedor of The New FamiliarsJonathan Erickson of the now-defunct Noises 10 and Matt Branniff, Ancient Cities is a band with some serious Queen City pedigree (and a bit of Charlotte supergroup–at least to the locals). Existing somewhere in the space between the psychedelic rock of the sixties and the ambient folk rock of today, Ancient Cities expertly borrows from the pioneers of the past and rebuilds it in the here and now.

Their carefully constructed collage of the classic and the contemporary is evident from the opening track, “Juice.” The pummeling drums, fuzzed-out guitar, and accessible lyrics prove that Ancient Cities would be at home on the radio right next to The Black Keys. But then somewhere around the 2:20 mark the song begins to wander and you get a sense of what Ancient Cities is really about: deconstruction and experimentation. It’s classic sixties psychedelia– think The Zombies or The Doors– prowling in the shadows of modern rock, daring and dreamy in its execution.

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Photo by Tracy Cummins

Ancient Cities undoubtedly embraces current musical trends, but the past is never far behind. The psychedelic influence of the sixties comes full-frontal on the song “Edie Sedgwick”– a keys driven, horn-inflected send-up to Andy Warhol’s doomed muse (sort of). Sort of, because Stephen Warwick puts a time-shifting twist on the tale of the infamous New York City model and socialite. The protagonist of his present-day story is an Edie-like disenchanted debutante who wishes to be “the poster girl from a decade gone by” whose “cut out pictures of Edie Sedgwick are the only thing that keeps her going on.”

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Photo by Kristen Hill

Those lyrics are even more haunting when you take into consideration that Sedgwick died at the age of 28 of an “accidental” drug overdose. The song reveals Warwick’s talent for narrative songwriting and highlights Ancient Cities ability to craft musical arrangements that capture the mood of two eras simultaneously.

Stephen Warwick

The album straddles time and geography– taking you from the glossy sheen of sixties NYC in “Edie Sedgwick” to the moonlit forest paths of the pastoral “Werewolf,” where acoustic guitar and gentle drum thumps guide you to the soaring ethereal ending (complete with echoey vocal effects). It’s a Sunday drive on a winding country road…in a spaceship.

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Photo by Tracy Cummins

Trippy and cosmic as it all may be, one thing is clear, Ancient Cities, although not technically a jam band, is a band that can obviously jam. And they want you to know this, because each song on their album leaves plenty of wiggle room for improvisation in a live setting– preferably an older venue with a little bit of history to it.

Upcoming Live Shows

Catch Ancient Cities at the Visulite this Saturday (July 12th) with Sam the Lion and Bat Sheets

Also appearing at Floydfest on July 25th and 26th and God Save the Queen City Music Festival in Charlotte on August 9.

Follow Ancient Cities on Twitter and Facebook .

Listen to “LASR” from the Ancient Cities self-titled debut album.

Watch “Juice” by Ancient Cities.

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