Tag Archives: John Doe

Harmony-singing heaven – the short and precious career of Tres Chicas

Hi all. It’s a very busy week this week, with my day off tomorrow looking likely to be not very ‘off’ at all. So I’ve dug into the archives and pulled out a post I wasn’t totally happy with about music I really like. Here’s a new and more fleshed-out version to tide you over till the weekend, when I will, I hope, be back.

Where are Tres Chicas? Seven years is a long time not to have put out a new record. Especially when they only made two albums in their initial short burst of activity.

Tres Chicas is the name adopted by its three principal members: Lynn Blakey (Let’s Active, Glory Fountain), Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine). They’re all veterans of the indie country scene of the American south. They met each other and began singing together for fun during the long period where their bands played shows on the same bill, at home and on tour, in various combinations. Their name was coined by the owner of the bar where they performed in public for the first time and it stuck.

In 2004, they released their debut, Sweetwater, on Yep Roc. This label is worthy, not cutting-edge, and has made something of a specialty of signing industry veterans (folks like Gang of Four, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, Chris Stamey, Fountains of Wayne, John Doe, Jim White, Sloan, Soft Boys, Tony Joe White – you get the idea). Sweetwater, recorded and produced by Chris Stamey, was an Uncut reader’s dream come true: a who’s who of alt. country talent. Original Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore (also Caitlin Cary’s husband) was on board, as was pianist Jen Gunderman (who’d replaced Karen Grotberg in the Jayhawks).

And it was a very fine record, too: simple, spare, a little lo-fi, a little rough around the edges, but utterly charming.

Its opening songs (a brace by the normally reliable Lynn Blakey, who is probably the dominant songwriting voice over their two albums) are plodding and somewhat stodgy, which is a shame as Heartbeat especially is a nice song held down by a drum track that trudges rather than bounces, but the album comes alive thereafter. The band work up a little sweat on a high-sprited cover of Loretta Lynn’s Deep as Your Pocket and then brake hard for a beautiful version of Lucinda Williams’ Am I Too Blue, where they’re backed by the members of Chatham County Line. This is where Tres Chicas are at their best: bringing the simplest of songs to life with their peerless harmony singing. If you’re a fan of this sort of stuff, listen on headphones. Cary’s on the left (also playing fiddle), Blakey in the middle and Lamm on the right. Three strong singers breathing with each other, listening to each other, phrasing with each other. It’s not slick, their voices don’t blend into one inseperable whole, but that’s what makes it so powerful

The good songs keep coming: Caitlin Cary’s Desire (written with Stamey and yet another Whiskeytown alum, Mike Daly) is clever and funny; In a While (written by and lead-sung by Lamm, with a Cary co-write) splits the difference between Hazeldine and early Gillian Welch. But the album’s highlight is When Was the Last Time, credited to all three band members, and featuring a spine-tingling final section where the singers repeat the opening line and title phrase in the round, their voices popping up in the left, right and centre channels while Gunderman plays a simple churchy piano and the band slowly comes back in. It’s a deceptively artful arrangement, inspired by what is probably the best song on the record, and certainly the one that most captures what’s great about this band: the warmth of the voices, the palpable feeling friendship between the band members, the sense that the stakes here are low and these people have nothing to prove to each other or to anyone else.

Perhaps such an atmosphere couldn’t be captured twice. Their second album Bloom, Red, and the Ordinary Girl (the band’s nicknames for each other apparently – but it’s still a dreadful, unwieldy title for an actual record), recorded in London with Geraint Watkins, Nick Lowe, BJ Cole and a cast of yeoman British musicians, is a less characterful, down-home affair. It does contain a couple of masterpieces (Cary and Blakey’s languorous All the Shade Trees in Bloom and jazzy Only Broken; Blakey’s plaintive Slip so Easily) so it’s worth hearing. The moment when all three singers voices come together to sing the title phrase on Shade Trees is worth the price of admission on its own – a moment that is all the overwhelming for how long Cary’s elongated, sleepy verse has held it back. But, unlike Sweetwater, BR&OG never becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, if this is your kind of music, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. Seriously, in the extended hiatus Welch and David Rawlings took during the last decade, no one was making better country music. I’m still hoping there’s going to be more.

Tres Chicas
l-r Cary, Blakey, Lamm

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Everything You Know is Wrong – The Production Club, featuring Lou Barlow

A look at Wally Gagel’s discography is instructive. Before 1999, he worked frequently with the likes of Sebadoh, Superchunk, Juliana Hatfield, and Tanya Donelly – all the Boston-area stalwarts. The relative commercial success of Belly and Folk Implosion was the closest he got to the mainstream.

After appearing on the American Beauty soundtrack through the inclusion of a Folk Implosion song, though, his work gets more and more high profile: the Eels, Muse, New Order, even the Backstreet Boys. Now he mixes Rihanna (and has mixed Jessica Simpson and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus) records and has steady employment engineering iTunes Originals sessions for a certain internet-only music distributor, which actually sounds like quite a fun gig (working with a very wide range of artists across pretty much every conceivable musical style – most engineering types would find that kind of challenge exciting, even if they weren’t wild about the individual artists).

It’s a long way from the rough and ready early Folk Implosion and Mary Lou Lord EPs.

When Gagel parlayed his new-found industry clout into a record deal for his own project in 2003, he already had the profile that would have allowed him to reach up and out to big-name guest stars, and maybe score a few minor hit singles on the back of the star’s name recognition. It says a lot about him, then, that instead it was his old crew that Gagel asked to come in to front his songs, and Jon Doe from X, Emm Gryner, Donelly, Lou Barlow and Hafdis Huld (from 4AD band Gus Gus) duly answered the call.

The music is good, if not massively original. If you can imagine a halfway point between contemporaneous Moby and Chemical Brothers records, that’s about where the Production Club’s Follow Your Bliss sat. It frequently sounds tailor-made for soundtracking Hollywood action scenes, making his current employment very easily explicable. Its quieter, sparer moments were stronger, giving space to the vocalists to communicate their own personalities.

My favourite amongst these more vocal-led tracks was Everything You Know is Wrong, featuring Lou Barlow and Emm Gryner. It sounds, unsurprisingly, like the Folk Implosion – in fact, it most closely recalls Natural One, from the soundtrack to Larry Clark’s Kids, which had been a minor hit single in the US in the mid-1990s. Same sort of tempo and rhythmic feel, same kind of sparse, drum-led arrangement, but a more fully realised song, one enhanced by Barlow’s improved vocal abilities; over the second half of the nineties, Barlow had matured into a fine singer, most noticeably on the Folk Implosion’s One Part Lullaby and the final Sebadoh album before their 14-year hiatus (The Sebadoh). So much more confident was Barlow, in fact, that in the video for this song he stands up front at the microphone alone, smartly attired, specs-less and sans guitar, while Gagel – the primary artist and composer – sits at the back playing the drums. For old Folk Implosion fans who hadn’t got into the New Folk Implosion – with its full-band sound, Sebadoh-lite acoustic guitars and generally soporific air – this was a nice little nostalgic blast.

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Wally Gagel

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Dohnosaur Jr!. l-r Bob d’Amico, Lou Barlow, Murph, Jason Loewenstein, J Mascis. Well who’d have thought, eh?