I’ve been on a sort of alternative country kick recently, having reviewed albums by Hank Williams III and bevy of outsider country icons in their younger days. And now comes a third approach to that hallowed genre in the form of Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl, an album by the alt-country sisterhood Tres Chicas. Tres Chicas, which started as a one-off project but is now a permanent concern, consists three friends from the Raleigh, North Carolina area: Lynn Blakey, who is a veteran of the great Southern indie music scene that gave us REM; Caitlin Cary, a founding member of Whiskeytown, which also gave us Ryan Adams; and Tonya Lamm, a member of the big-in-Europe indie-rock/folk/country band Hazeldine.
Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl (the title refers both to the Chicas’ nicknames and to lyrics on the album) is a comfortable, completely unpretentious alternative country album of relaxed performances, gorgeous harmonies, and generally outstanding songwriting. Supported by crack playing from Matt Radford (upright bass) and Geraint Watkins (piano, organ) and team-produced by frequent Nick Lowe collaborators Neil Brockbank and Robert Trehern (who also features on drums), Tres Chicas sound like they’re having a blast singing some lovely, aching songs that are reminiscent of Gram Parsons, the Jayhawks, Emmylou Harris, and the laid-back earthy earnestness of the Indigo Girls.
Musically, the album tends to stick to easy tempos and sparse arrangements organized around acoustic guitar, keyboards, and the Chicas’ twining harmonies. Because of this, matters sometimes threaten to succumb to the dreaded mid-tempo syndrome. But although the dreaded mid-tempo syndrome has rendered hundreds of otherwise fine albums as sleep-inducing as a bathtub of warm syrup, on Bloom, Red & the Ordinary Girl the live-sounding, spacious production and gorgeous singing helps to make sure that mostly doesn’t happen.
Tres Chicas’ secret weapon, however, is definitely masterful songwriting. Each of the Chicas wrote songs for this album, and working together must surely have raised their game. There are so many styles, voices, and narrative devices here that it’s possible to believe that they are the work of a dozen different writers.
Take “My Love,” “Shade Trees in Bloom,” and “Red,” three selections from the middle of the album which also happen to be the sources of the album’s title. I suspect each was written by a different Chica, because they are so distinct yet so absolutely in line with what Tres Chicas are about.
“My Love” is a gently swaying love song that paints in deft strokes a story of slightly distressing devotion with lines like “I’m not Jesus Christ, I’m just an ordinary girl/ and everywhere I go, you go/ Under high silver skies, you shelter me from rain/ you make it very plain you’re mine, my love.” Is this love actually shelter, or is it stifling and crippling? The song never quite decides.
Next is the quiet “Shade Trees in Bloom.” In stark contrast to “My Love,” this song’s lyrics are plainer and more direct, almost sounding like the “straight from my heart” centerpiece of a lost Broadway hit, with stanzas like
All quiet now, just listening
Sometimes what you think is the end is the beginning
I’ll put you to sleep but you keep laughing
Let’s put our arms together, baby, we’ll see what happens
On the chorus, one of the Chicas breaks out of the harmony to sing in ascending intervals “I want something beautiful, I want something good,” a sentiment almost corny enough to roll your eyes to but redeemed by the performance. The song edges right up to maudlin without stepping over the edge.
Different again is the vituperative heartbreak of “Red,” in which the three sing, “You have gone off to another, one who you think suits you better/ I don’t wish you well, and I’ll see you in hell/ And I’m sitting here burning your letters,” like a young Elvis Costello circa All This Useless Beauty. Even though not every lyric on the album works perfectly, most artists don’t show this much range in a career, much less in the span of three songs.
It is good that Cary, Lamm, and Blakey have decided to make Tres Chicas a permanent thing. They are talented songwriters, and Bloom, Red, & The Ordinary Girl is packed with fine writing that only rarely dips into anything resembling the standard folk/country coffeehouse confessional mode. Although some of the imagery is a bit overcooked, and a couple songs do melt into mid-tempo torpor, those aren’t fatal flaws in an otherwise accomplished and thoughtful and… (pretty? that’s condescending)… and, and… luminous batch of alt-country songs. All twelve songs together in a row can be a little too much to take, but my iTunes’ shuffle function proves that on their own, each one is a gem. I’m not going to like this album in every mood, but it sure sounds nice right now.Powered by Sidelines