With 2010's Talking Machine, Stephen Warwick emerged as one of the region's rising star songwriters. The LP was stacked with memorable melodies, sharp storytelling and triumphant choruses, and highlighted by judicious blending of electronic and orchestral accents.
But Warwick, perhaps unwilling to be pigeon-holed as another folk-pop singer-songwriter, shed his Secondhand Stories band-skin for this more ambitious vehicle. Like its predecessor, this LP clocks in briskly (30 minutes). But its increasingly complex arrangements and instrumentation reflect an expanded sonic palette.
Most of the album's 10 tracks recapture Warwick's knack for penning classic-sounding pop with a melancholy undertow, while also allowing for broader arrangements (performed by a slew of local players). Yet this record doesn't cohere quite as well as Warwick's debut. That’s down to the opening tracks, which seem like a repudiation of the subtleties that made Talking Machine appealing and the rest of Ancient Cities feel like a different recording.
The synth-infused hand-clap opener, “Juice,” sounds like those bombastic mid-70s arena rock hits whose excesses helped birth punk’s back-to-basics movement. The nervy "Novella" is better, but the melody fights through an overbearing synth figure that dominates the early proceedings.
It’s then, though, that the record abruptly U-turns back to Warwick’s strengths, each track flowing effortlessly from one mood and tempo to another; each accent serving the song rather than overpowering it. With its sunny arrangements masking the sad tale of another party girl casualty, "Edie Sedgwick" sounds like Macca circa Band on the Run; bowed viola and finger-picked guitar suggest the melancholic “Eleanor Rigby” echoes in “Velvethead.” "Werewolf" features overlaid piano and organ leading to thundering choruses — though like Elliot Smith, which it resembles, it starts from a place of loneliness.
Maybe the most telling track is “LASR” (Love and Sweet Rhythm). Building its verses on a trellis of shuffling beats, electric guitar picking and long trumpet notes, the song really earns its big synth-fueled crescendo by the time it rolls around. When all those trumpets, strings and keys serve the melodies and hooks, Warwick’s songs soar; on the rare occasions when they don’t, they’ve taken the spotlight from where it should be.
A release party will be held at the Visulite Theatre on July 12.