Much like the town in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Denver seems like a really normal place until you scratch the surface. But listen to the music that comes out of there — from 16 Horsepower to Laura Goldhamer & the Silvernail — and it becomes clear that something is a little, um ... off.
"Yeah, there's definitely a dark kind of folk thing happening here," says Kevin Larkin, who co-helms Colorado's no-less-quirky Chimney Choir with Kris Drickey and David Rynhart. "What's funny is that me and Kris lived in Boulder before moving to Denver, and there it's the exact opposite. Everything that comes out of Boulder is really sunny."
Where Chimney Choir falls on that spectrum is as tricky to pinpoint as the band's musical influences. Larkin, who spent some formative Denver years going to see gothic country bands like Slim Cessna's Auto Club, also played traditional Irish music with Rynhart in Boulder. He then went on to join a Mississippi string band for five years, before returning to Denver to form Chimney Choir in late 2010.
"We reconnected about a year and a half ago," says Larkin. "I'd played a lot of bluegrass, and David played tons of Irish music; he actually lived over there for a while, playing flute and guitar. And we all have diverse influences. He played classical piano and worked up a bunch of Jobim pieces, and I really love early '90s hip-hop and samba music. So we have this foundation where we can jump genres a little bit."
Apart from a lyrical nod to Jay-Z — "I got 99 problems / And three of them are girls / We argue and we yawn / At every wonder in the world" — there's nothing resembling hip-hop on (ladder), the art-folk trio's new debut album. And no, the track "Ace of Spades" is not a cover of the Motorhead classic.
Still, (ladder) is dynamically diverse, with band members trading instruments that include accordion and banjo, samples and synths, flute and piano. During live shows, a drum pedal and Samsonite suitcase take the place of the cajón hand drum that's used in the studio. They also serve up stunning three-part harmonies that should please any Haunted Windchimes fans in the crowd.
The seven-minute "All In Your Mind" epitomizes the band's eclecticism. Epic yet accessible, it starts off sounding like a jumpy silent film soundtrack, before venturing into Dan Hicks and Kurt Weill terrain, a vocal buildup suggesting Pink Floyd and the Incredible String Band, a mournful piano-and-Mellotron interlude, a swaggering "Hey Jude"-style coda, and maybe a little Railroad Earth and Phish thrown in along the way.
Recorded last month before a live audience in an old pipe organ chapel, (ladder) is a big sonic jump from the band's home-recorded EPs. It was financed by a $3,000 Kickstarter campaign that, Larkin notes, "covered the cost of recording, mastering and duplicating it — just barely. It's kind of hard to ask people for money. But, you know, a lot of people, even if they like you, they're not gonna pay to download your music. It doesn't even cross their minds."
So the electronic busking turned out to be worth it. After all, how long would it have taken to earn that much on the road?
"Oh, I don't know," says Larkin, "probably about 10 years."