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Courage on fire 

Tres Chicas take their chances--a kid, a studio in London, new hands on their music--and make a near-perfect return.

After thanking the usual parties--record label executives, producers, backing bandmates, the fans--in the liner notes of their second album, Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl, Tres Chicas does something a bit too uncommon: "and once again, ourselves." Most bands don't thank themselves in album acknowledgements, perhaps afraid that it will look presumptuous or perhaps because they don't feel the record required anything extraordinary on their part.

click to enlarge Tres Chicas: (left to right) Tonya Lamm, Caitlin Cary and Lynn Blakey
  • Tres Chicas: (left to right) Tonya Lamm, Caitlin Cary and Lynn Blakey

But the self-gratitude of the Chicas--Lynn Blakey, Caitlin Cary, Tonya Lamm, who came together five years ago after time in bands like Hazeldine, The Glory Fountain and Whiskeytown--on their sophomore effort speaks volumes, both about the creation of the record and the music itself. On both fronts, Bloom is an album that stands with the stamp of both personal and artistic valor, a statement of trust between three people who had to believe in one another and their worth as a band to make their best, most nuanced and most ambitious record yet. With Bloom, one Chica patting another on the back and vice versa is not only done but also deserved.

For Bloom, Tres Chicas had to retool their songwriting process. They also decided to record the album in London--a plan which posed severe financial and logistical dilemmas. They made it happen, though, and left their alt.country nest to make a mature and sophisticated record with the rare ability to satisfy veteran Chicas fans by taking them to new places.

But, first, it was written. For the Chicas' 2003 debut, Sweetwater, Lamm co-wrote four of the record's ten songs. While Bloom was being written, though, Lamm had to devote her time to her four-year-old daughter, Sofia. She goes without songwriting credit on all of the disc's twelve numbers. Surprisingly, that doesn't bother her so much. As a prescient metaphor, Tres Chicas held hands, just like the members of Walkertown, N.C.'s Gospel Light Ladies Trio, as depicted on the cover of Sweetwater.For Bloom, they had to hold it together.

"When one goes down, the others pick up the slack," says Lamm on a Sunday afternoon from her Raleigh home, less than two weeks before the band begins its first tour behind Bloom and three weeks away from nine shows in four days at Austin's annual festival, South
by Southwest. "But, then again, I've never met
a Caitlin song I didn't love, or a Lynn song I didn't love."

Cary and Blakey wrote most of the record, collaborating around Cary's kitchen table for several tracks. In essence, the Chicas turned what could be a weakness--a principal member absent from the songwriting process--into a strength. Sweetwater, as good as it was, seemed largely disconnected: It hummed and hawed and did little in between, with songs like the forlorn "Foot of the Bed" and the searching "Desire" slinking in sadness and Loretta Lynn's "Deep as Your Pocket" and George Jones' "Take the Devil Out of Me" shaking loose like upbeat rock afterthoughts. Not Bloom: Each track seems to be another juncture on a continuum of songs built to emphasize the group's three-way harmony perfection, with nothing extemporaneous or superfluous.

"Our way of writing this, it was a lot more cohesive, as a band, even though Tonya wasn't part of the writing" explains Cary, who wrote two of the disc's twelve songs and co-wrote four. "Even if we were not co-writing, it felt like we were because of the emphasis we put on the singing parts. As opposed to Sweetwater,which was mostly a collection of individual songs, this was a proper record."

When Cary and Blakey did write as a band, sans Lamm, they routinely had portions of songs already worked out, but they simply needed help shaping a verse or a chorus or, as Cary jokes about one of Bloom's finest moments, "Red," "the chorus ... or the verse ... or that kind-of-undefined part in the song."

"Bloom feels more like one piece of work, and Sweetwater sounds more like having a party," says Blakey. "But a party with a bunch of people coming together, and they're friends but they're not necessarily coming from the same place at the same time."

For Bloom, the party found everybody in the moment in London, recording with Neil and Jack Brockbank, Kenny Paterson and Robert Trehern at Goldtop Studio last May. The band met Yep Roc labelmate Geraint Watkins in 2004 when he played at The Pour House in Raleigh. Watkins, whose credits include work with Van Morrison, Nick Lowe, Paul McCartney and The Fabulous Thunderbirds, was touring on his latest, Dial "W" for Watkins, produced by Trehern and Neil Brockbank. He connected with the band and convinced them that they should record their next album in London with his crew.

"It felt right, and we connected with him so immediately and felt so much excitement. It seemed worth going through hell and high water to make it work" says Cary, mentioning that she and Lamm--who she dubs the band's natural cynics--almost scrapped recording in London because they didn't think it could happen. "Which we did, kind of. There were times when me and Tonya were like, 'Fuck, this is never gonna work.'"

But Blakey and Yep Roc co-owner Glenn Dicker both convinced them that they could. Blakey laughs that she had stopped taking her medicine, and the voice in her head told her that recording in London would be worth it. They budgeted every dollar, planning to tour several of the new songs throughout Europe, with Sara Bell and Lamm's daughter in tow. They eventually settled in a small apartment outside of London. Every day before noon, they would take the tube into the city and spend close to twelve hours working. They took two days off during an entire month of recording. Cary managed to see the Tate Gallery. Blakey always found herself staring into the famous London visiting grounds like Westminster Abbey as they were closing for the day.

But they were there to make an album, and they did: Matt Radford played bass, Trehern played drums and Watkins manned the keyboards. People like Nick Lowe and Bill Kirchen stopped in for guest spots. Cary had to leave while mixes were being finalized, and she says she cried all the way to the airport.

"We felt part of the record in a way that you don't always feel, and they got us in a way more than I had ever even hoped," says Cary, who insists that everyone who ever meets Watkins probably falls in love with him. "I have never experienced anything like making this album."

Tres Chicas play a CD release show for Bloom, Red & the Ordinary Girl on Friday, March 10 at The Pour House in Raleigh at 10 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Hey Negrita opens.

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