Some musical moments stay with you in life. Mine, specifically, is seeing Ancient Cat Society for the first time. It was at Fitzgerald’s. The song was “Love Hurts,” and watching Sergio Trevino leave the stage, I knew I was in for something special as Haley Barnes and Austin Sepulvado transformed the Everly Brothers/Gram Parsons/Nazareth standard into something much older than its ’50s origins.
The interplay between their voices and a simply strummed guitar made the song all their own. I stood there with some 30-odd people, dumbstruck. After the show, I made it my mission to get to know the three, and eventually, full disclosure, all three became close friends and sometime roommates of mine. Six years later, Ancient Cat Society will release their first official LP this weekend, and the songs feel like they haven’t aged a day. The beginnings of the trio were as natural as the music itself.
“Buxton was recording Nothing Here Seems Strange and I brought [in] Haley and told them, ‘Hey, guys, you gotta meet this girl Haley. She’s cool, and by the way she’s 14 years old and 3 foot 9!’ recalls Sergio Trevino, the Society’s principal songwriter. “She came in and blew us all away. We had a lot of fun making that record, so we decided to keep it going. There was no real goal or big picture when we started [this] band.”
“You had songs that weren’t working for Buxton, so this was a way to repurpose them,” interrupts Sepulvado, the last member of Ancient Cat Society to join the group. He helped Barnes and Trevino fine-tune the melodies and harmonies as they were writing the tunes.
On their latest, simply titled Ancient Cat Society (Splice Records), the trio seems to exist in the past and present all at once. Within the modern arrangements to these seemingly old-time folk tunes lie some of Trevino's and Haley Barnes’s strongest songwriting to date. The album begins with the slow and easy “Golden Geese,” a prequel of sorts that signals the end of a relationship with lines like “at the dust of high noon, there was only me and you” as Trevino and Barnes’s voices blend effortlessly.
“It’s about finding new love after losing it,” Trevino says. “Having mixed feelings and feeling guilty.”
The scorned-lover tale “The Loneliest Pursuit” pushes Barnes’s perspective to the forefront. Over lush cello and an unexpectedly bright pedal steel/keyboard duet, she asks, “Do you think it’s something more? Or am I a shirt that you outwore?”
The next track, “Honey, Honey,” brings the nostalgia full-throttle as lines like “picked up a bottle of blueberry wine, and leave the light on for you” can’t help but draw the listener into the trio’s scenic storytelling. The minimalist “Do You Feel,” the catchiest track on the album, elevates Barnes’s voice, while Sepulvado’s baritone keeps the song grounded. Barnes has a knack for vivid imagery in her writing, as here with lines like “come tide I’ll walk out the door with the milky moon upon my shoulder.”
This LP, ACS’s second after 2012’s Stay Home, is mostly folky tunes, but do not underestimate the trio’s power to surprise. “Why Are You Getting Married?” is a doo-wop number with a straight-up R&B arrangement. Barnes’s voice carries the chorus line and it sounds at times as if she couldn’t sing any higher. The track hits hard and brings back flashes of Jackson 5 and Motown.
“Hey, Hey” jumps right back in where “Honey, Honey” left off, a fun, old-timey country tune that doesn't sound hokey or contrived. These old-sounding songs retain a sense of humor about themselves in order to keep from sounding too corny. “Carolina” is a brilliant take on a greedy lover that showcases Trevino’s wit and the band’s ability to tell a story together.
If there was ever a song that could stop you in your tracks, it would be the stunning “The Leaves,” the album’s next-to-last song. The band pulls the aching story of a growing rift between husband and wife together with impossible grace. Live, this song will make you feel all sorts of things. Almost released as a Buxton song, this track truly lives within the walls of Ancient Cat Society’s sound. The last line is a lyrical punch in the gut.
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Ancient Cat Society have the power of their combined voices, each with something to offer, as well as the strength of their songwriting. There is much to say about the beauty of their harmonies and how much in sync these three sound together. Still, what truly makes this record memorable is the power of the arrangements, as produced by Steve Christensen, to showcase how great the songs are. Best-known for his stint in Robert Ellis’s band, Will Van Horn happened to be interning with Christensen and wound up playing steel guitar (both pedal and lap) and upright bass on the new album.
“He got suckered into that hard,” Sepulvado says, laughing.
“I had worked with Steve a handful of times, and I felt that he would be able to give it the personal touch that he’s so good at doing,” adds Sepulvado, who also acted as musical director on the album. “You always end up getting really great takes or ideas when you’re relaxed and in the room, trying stuff out. It was very relaxed.”
Ancient Cat Society release their self-titled LP Saturday, May 27 at The Heights Theatre, 339 West 19th, with special guests Say Girl Say. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $20-$160.