So there’s this city in Italy, right? Called Venice? I’ve never been there, but two of my very favourite artists have captured its theoretical spirit in often entirely different ways. Painting primarily in the first half of the 18th century, Antonio Caneletto created works of architectural precision and immaculately coloured beauty. In the following century, the English Romanticist JMW Turner took inspiration from Canaletto and from the Italian concept of chiaroscuro to produce works of quite utterly different beauty: studies of sunlight and its effects that, taken as part of Turner’s overall body of work, arguably laid the foundations for the Impressionist movement.
And what does this have to do with Tres Chicas? Well, let’s see.
2004 was a good year for the roses. Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose was quite clearly the album of the year in any genre, but music as fine as Tift Merritt’s Tambourine, Julie Roberts’ self-titled debut, and Iris DeMent’s Lifeline also stated a clear and present case for country music in all its forms, while Gretchen Wilson kicked up a redneck storm in almost unprecedented style. Less noticed, but no less wonderful, Tres Chicas’ Sweetwater was a match for any of them bar Van Lear Rose.
Two years on, the North Carolina trio (Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary, and Tonya Lamm) are back with an album that is less instantly adorable than Sweetwater, but that might well come to exceed its achievements in time. Certainly aware of its potential, the three singers are now promising that Tres Chicas is no longer just a side project.
While the Chris Stamey-produced Sweetwater had a very particular sparse and largely plaintive southern feel, Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl is a Turner to Sweetwater‘s Canaletto. A more dense work that comes wrapped in smoky soul shades and occasional blurred jazz tones, it requires attention and careful listening before you begin to appreciate its deep underlying beauty. No doubt this is largely because Tres Chicas recorded this new record in London with a team of celebrated British musicians and producers Neil Brockbank and Robert Trehern. Certainly, when I spoke with Caitlin Cary last year about her album of duets, Begonias (with Thad Cockrell), she was barely off the plane back from London and very enthusiastic about the experience of recording Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl with the likes of Geraint Watkins and Nick Lowe.
I don’t know if the other two Chicas have noticed it, or if they mind, but the generally darker production values of Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl tend to set off Cary’s own vocals to the greatest advantage. Whereas Sweetwater was a collaboration of equals, this new collection is very much the Caitlin Cary Show. Her deep rich emotive singing, at once both grounded and soaring, provides just about every highlight here. Take the fourth song, “Shade Trees in Bloom”, as an example. It’s moving very nicely along a gentle track of sweet dolour led by (I think) the clean, simple singing of Lynn Blakey, but then at precisely one minute and 58 seconds Cary’s voice cuts in and elevates the song to another level. She’s simply so at home in this setting that it’s almost unfair to her colleagues.
One of Turner’s first paintings of Venice paid testimony to the influence of Canaletto by including, quite unfeasibly, the Italian artist at work with canvas and brush. Similarly, Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl looks back occasionally to Sweetwater, but taken as a whole this is essentially an evolution in sound. And while I really don’t know much about art, Canaletto, or Turner, I do know what I like; and I like Bloom, Red and the Ordinary Girl very much.