Tag Archives: Tony Joe White

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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Rainy Night in Georgia – Brook Benton

When you’re listening to a song about somewhere, your reaction to it is inevitably coloured by whether you know the place in real life. And by how well you know it. To appreciate some songs maybe it’s better not to know somewhere too well, but just to have an idea of it. Songs glorifying London don’t work on me – I’ve lived there, worked there, studied there. I know it too well. I can get sentimental about places where important things have happened to me. I can smile at the memories of little backwaters I can pretend to myself only I know about. I can appreciate the little details noticed and included by a writer who knows whereof they sing. But for the most part, any song that finds romance in London isn’t aimed at me.

New York, though – that’s another matter. I eat up songs about New York. Never been there. One day I might, although I do worry that no version could ever be as good as the one put in my head by Odyssey’s Native New Yorker. Nothing could be that good, that sophisticated, streetwise, worldly. Certainly I couldn’t.

Laurel Canyon, Woodstock, Maxwell Street, Beale Street – I have ideas and images about all these places that songs put there. Georgia, too, a place that has done pretty well by songwriters, as perhaps any state that has given the world James Brown, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight, Otis Redding, OutKast, the Allman Brothers and R.E.M. should do.

Of course, Rainy Night in Georgia has become a standard since Tony Joe White wrote it in 1962. It had to. A cynical soul might conclude that it was designed to. It’s a song you hear often, tackled by singers great and indifferent. And Rod Stewart, too. In Britain, it seems, you’re likely to hear Randy Crawford’s 1981 version, with its plastic backing. You might hear Brother Ray’s over-egged, rather hammy version. You certainly won’t hear Tennessee Ernie Ford’s sepulchral country-baritone rendition (it’s great, though!). But the one you want to hear – and too seldom do – is the 1970 Jerry Wexler-produced recording by Brook Benton that popularised the song in the first place.

Benton had had number-one R&B hits in 1959 and 1960, and Rainy Night saw him return to the top of the R&B charts a decade later, still only 39, but with a more authoritative gravelly voice, perfect for the late-hour weariness of this kind of material.

There’s always a danger when a singer gets hold of a standard (or one in waiting) that in trying to rise to the material, they become stilted, mannered and singerly. Perhaps because the song was still just Rainy Night in Georgia and not yet Rainy Night in Georgia that Benton’s performance retains a predominantly soft-voiced intimacy, quite the best vocal anyone who’s tried to tackle the song has delivered.

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Brook Benton