Some acts have a style, personality and point of view all their own, one that rapidly develops from faltering first steps to confident adult strides.
That's the transition Pueblo's Haunted Windchimes make on their new album, Out With the Crow, which showcases a band ready to leave the nest.
Their rustic, sepia-toned Americana tightens and sharpens its focus, with a more minimalist vibe that conversely heightens the impact. Of course, their 2010 full-length debut, Honey Moonshine, wasn't exactly a Phil Spector wall-of-sound production; the change is pretty subtle, but definitely noticeable. The beautiful harmonies, while still at the forefront of their signature sound, are deployed with less frequency and greater craft, while the dynamics are heightened by more selective playing.
The recording of Out With the Crow was part of an especially productive period for the band that began with last October's appearance on A Prairie Home Companion. At the suggestion of multi-instrumentalist Mike Clark, the Windchimes spent a weekend in bandleader Inaiah Lujan's living room, just test-recording the songs for their next album. The band ended up being so pleased with the ease, vitality and intimacy of the results that they decided to forego a proper studio.
Vocals were subsequently recorded throughout the house, in whatever room's acoustics best complemented their parts. (Desirae Garcia's sounded best in the laundry room.) From Thanksgiving to Christmas, they recorded the entire album that way, two or three songs each weekend, until they had a dozen.
"Most of these songs have been performed in front of a crowd and really gotten their road legs before we ever brought them into the studio," says Lujan. "And then you start putting these parts under the microscope, and all of a sudden you're like, 'Wait a minute. This part I've been playing forever just doesn't work.'
"Instead of adding to the chaos trying to cover stuff up, we found ourselves minimizing and really chewing the fat with this one."
Room to breathe
Tracks that benefit from that approach include "May," a hypnotic paean to yearning wherein Lujan's sister Chela, accompanied by sparse acoustic guitar and sibling harmonies, sings, "She's the one I've been looking for / Searched the world over and more." The smoky jazz-blues "Giant" makes nice use of a melodica, bass and banjo, while the loping "Harvest," with its laggard beat and repeated "It's going to be alright," goes Gene Autry in the middle with a yodeling C&W passage.
"Our previous studio experience was kind of nerve-wracking," admits Lujan. "When we did Honey Moonshine, we didn't have the total history as a band. Although it's a great album, I feel like I can feel our nerves on the album. This one had no pressure. We busted through the songs pretty quickly and we all were really digging the sound."
While the new Windchimes album may be adventurous in spots, it's overall sound is fairly understated.
"We're not a bluegrass band, we're not trying to fill every single space and play every single note in between the verses," says Lujan. "We're really interested in leaving space and having room for songs to breathe and grow. The little splashes of color and production that we have, I feel are even subdued and not really full or out there. That's just what we wanted to do."
Preparing for takeoff
It's all part of the journey for a group that's come a long way in a relatively short time, its windblown spirits driven by the bandleader's wanderlust. Six years ago, a 22-year-old Lujan was freshly heart-broken when he took to the road, hitchhiking as far as Bloomington, Ind., and catching a train to New York City.
A couple years later, when Lujan hooked up with his girlfriend Garcia and they began making music together, he suggested they retrace his old steps on a ramshackle duo tour. They kept going right past Bloomington, though, down through Nashville and on to Savannah, Ga., where Garcia once lived.
Along the way, something changed as they listened to a tape a friend from the tour made for them of folk icon and Woody Guthrie protégé Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
"There's something about driving through the South listening to old Jack Elliott that I feel really grabbed me and changed me," says Lujan. "We got pulled into this whole world of Leadbelly and transient train-hopping songwriting."
By the time he and Garcia returned home to Pueblo, Chela had graduated high school and come to town looking for something to do. She started learning banjo and singing with the band. The trio gradually became a five-piece with the addition of upright bassist Sean Fanning and secret weapon Mike Clark.
"He's just a monster, and still blows my mind to this day," says Lujan. "He's a freak of nature. He's 33 years old and has been playing music just six years, but he plays and writes like someone who has been playing his entire life."
With the new album, Lujan feels the band is finally firing on all cylinders.
"I feel like Out With the Crow is us kind of flying. It's starting that process where we're way more confident with what we're doing, and able to take more chances because of that confidence. I feel like we're operating on our highest frequency so far."