Wild Mercury Sound

Charalambides: "Likeness"

John Mulvey

I was playing this new album by Charalambides in the office yesterday afternoon, and someone mentioned that it would sound pretty good - and, well, pretty unnerving - on a mixtape with tracks from the recent PJ Harvey album, "White Chalk".

It was a good point, and it made me listen to this album in quite a different way. I've been very taken with Charalambides for a few years now. In many ways, they're one of the forerunners of the whole acid-folk/new psych thing, having made innumerable rare and far-out albums since the very early '90s. I can't pretend I've heard anywhere near all of this stuff, being most familiar with the albums they've recorded in the past few years for the comparatively overground Kranky label.

But I think you could roughly characterise the band - they're predominantly a duo of Christine and Tom Carter, though a third player, Heather Leigh Murray, figured in the line-up for a while - as a sort of desert analogue to the earthy, forest-dwelling types that have driven the scene from various rustic corners of New England.

Charalambides originate from Texas, and I always think you can feel the desert in the gaps between Tom's febrile guitar improvisations and Christina's lonesome ululations. "Unknown Spin", from 2003, was where I came in, I think, and its slowly unravelling meditations suggested a kind of ambient correlative to the dusty boom of desert rock.

The last couple of Kranky albums, however, have had much more definable songforms - last year's "A Vintage Burden" even recalled more conventional indie-psych types like Mazzy Star; still stark, but warmer and more approachable melodically, perhaps.

"Likeness", in contrast, is compellingly austere fare, but it remains relatively accessible. Here, Christina Carter selects her lyrics from ancient folk songs in the public domain, then delivers them with a sort of stentorian ardour while Tom Carter constructs spare, looming new settings for them. I'm reminded, inevitably, of Nico, and also of Low's stealth and measure. Alan Sparhawk, though, never freestyles like Tom Carter as the magisterial "Do You See?" winds to a close; a freak-out that's at once abandoned but which doesn't disrupt the meticulous atmosphere of the album.

And, now, I'm curiously reminded of that PJ Harvey record, too. The instrumentation is very different from Harvey's piano studies, but the feel is strangely similar: a kind of enrapturing antique stillness to it all, with romantic verities being teased out of a reticent and uptight performer. Both albums, if this makes sense, feel like they're inhabited - maybe even played - by ghosts.


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