After witnessing two of Texan trio Charalambides’ hypnotic live performances, I received my first exposure to their recorded material through last year’s Unknown Spin, a professional reissue of one of their many limited-edition CDRs. The album consisted of four live improvisations centered around leisurely strummed electric and lap steel guitars, often prepared to sound like anything but themselves, and the haunting wordless voices of Christina Carter and Heather Leigh Murray. The music took its time going nowhere, but the journey was never less than beautiful and otherworldly. For months after first hearing the album, I put it in my stereo before I went to bed each night. I eagerly awaited the next Charalambides studio album, especially since Unknown Spin was touted as a mere foretaste of what their newer material would sound like. After listening to their long-awaited new album, Joy Shapes, I can safely say that I am not disappointed. However, I don’t think I’ll be falling asleep to this record any time soon.
In one respect, the title Joy Shapes is appropriate because, unlike the comparatively unstructured Unknown Spin, the music on this album seems to have been delicately shaped into a nebulous form, hovering somewhere between improvisation and premeditated composition. The album has a running time of nearly 76 minutes, which means that none of its five songs are models of concision. Nonetheless, every song does make its own slow journey from point A to point B, with numerous overdubs giving Heather, Christina, and her husband Tom the ability to conjure up more detailed and lush atmospheres than could probably be replicated live.
21-minute opener “Here Not Here” sets the tone for the rest of the record. It begins with one guitar repeatedly picking out a six-note motif as Christina’s smooth vibrato wanders on and off key. A morass of woozy slide guitars slowly emerges underneath her guitar and voice, sounding like a symphony of broken grandfather clocks. Christina chants “the rain shines, the sun falls” over and over again; her voice becomes more despondent and unhinged as it ascends into its upper registers. The guitars mirror her increased intensity by becoming more percussive and erratic. By the time “Here Not Here” reaches its midpoint Christina’s voice has entered Yoko Ono territory, and the guitar playing has devolved into horror-score chiming reminiscent of early Sonic Youth. After a series of siren-like hollers, of which I’m still not sure whether they emanate from voices or guitars, the song slowly returns to a rougher-edged version of its introductory motif.
“Here Not Here” may be unwieldy, but a near-symmetrical structure reveals itself to listeners who pay attention to it.
“Here Not Here” is also unlike anything on Unknown Spin in that
Christina’s voice almost sounds intentionally ugly in places, which brings me to my next point. Even though the songs on Joy Shapes may have a discernible shape, joy is one of the last emotions that the record provokes in me when I listen to it. If anything, the music is laced with undercurrents of sadness and fear. The title track boasts the most intelligible lyrics I’ve heard come out of Christina’s mouth; it’s a shame that she seems to be singing about the end of a relationship. When she reaches the song’s most climactic lyric “How does it feel when you know you’ve been left?” her voice shakes as if she’s weeping. According to the accompanying press kit, all of Joy Shapes’ vocals were recorded in what Tom Carter refers to as a “lost evening,” and judging by how insane Christina sounds, I believe him!
Christina’s vocals notwithstanding, there are still loads of moments that could serve as a soundtrack to my weirdest dreams. “Stroke” sounds like a ten-minute concerto for broken harps and acoustic guitars, piling out-of-tune arpeggios on top of each other until halfway through, when all of the instruments achieve a strange and almost accidental consonance. “Natural Night” consists almost entirely of crackling wind chimes, intermittent flickers of guitar and psaltery, and banshee wailing from Christina and Heather. Album closer “Voice of You” comes the closest to sounding like the songs on Unknown Spin, with Christina strumming and singing sweetly as a mountain of scrabbled, fuzzy slide guitars overtakes her. Overall, Joy Shapes is a scary yet enveloping slice of psychedelic ambient music that can make time itself stop if you’re courageous enough to listen to it alone and on headphones.
However, if the new Charalambides record is what Unknown Spin would sound like with more structure and detail, then the latest solo record by guitarist Tom Carter takes the opposite tack by stripping the music down to an almost intolerable degree of austerity and disorganization. Carter’s Monument consists of two solo lap steel guitar pieces that were recorded live to DAT three years ago, and were previously released in a limited edition of 55 CDRs. The first piece, “Monument 1 (Memorial),” is slightly longer than two minutes. It’s so quiet that upon first listen it took 30 seconds for me to hear any sound louder than the air conditioning system in my apartment, even though I had my stereo turned up to the loudest possible volume.
“Monument 2” is 47 minutes long, a length that would be an endurance test for any listener regardless of how good the music might be. From what I gather, Carter hooked his lap steel up to a series of effects pedals (flanger, reverb, delay, and distortion), and used prepared guitar techniques to make his instrument sound like anything but itself. This is basically the same thing that he does during any given Charalambides song, but without Christina or Heather to help him shape his experimentation into a slightly more musical form, it’s easy for the average listener to get bored. Yes, it’s great that Tom can make his lap steel sound like a cello, a bell, or even a jet airplane. However, it’s not so great that it takes 11 minutes for Tom to start playing his instrument with any degree of assertiveness, and that it takes him another seven minutes to develop an idea that’s worth repeating more than once.
At its best, “Monument 2” has a kind of shimmering radiance that I haven’t heard since John Cale’s Sun Blindness Music, but I must be honest. If I didn’t have to review this record, I wouldn’t have spent the first twenty minutes of this album waiting for Tom to get going. In short, I don’t see this album appealing to anyone other than the 55 people who originally bought it. I can only recommend Monument to people who think that Joy Shapes is too “poppy,” and who would be insane enough to think THAT?
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