[26 May 2006]
Texas group Charalambides, considered by many to be the quietly serious godfathers of the whole freak-folk movement, have been turning out shimmering hush-folk masterpieces on cassette, CD-R and CD, since the early ‘90s, way back before there was any kind of movement to lead. Their journey has found them pursuing a singular vision of the transporting possibilities of simple repetition, uncluttered melody, largely acoustic instrumentation and freely expressive vocals. Eschewing drums or swollen band line-ups, Charalambides has remained a duo, sometimes a trio, dedicated to exploring the spaces between notes, the significance of silences, the subversion of expectations within the basic idea of the song. Along the way, on albums like 2004’s Joy Shapes, they have charted some extreme regions, unearthing strange ghosts, almost falling off the edge of the world in their pursuit of unfettered exploration.
So, it’s not too difficult to see A Vintage Burden—recorded by the core duo of Tom and Christina Carter—as a return from the outer edges, back to the warm certainty of lyrics, verses, structure. It is certainly their most accessible album in quite some time, with the exploratory impulse subsumed into the confines and comfort of song. If anything, this album almost sounds like the weary come-down after the trip’s strange and unsettling peak.
Which isn’t to say that this is anything like a mainstream rock or folk album: this is still pretty unusual stuff and the six tracks here demonstrate a distinctly skewed take on the song cycle with a deliciously psychedelic flavour, much of it due to Christina Carter’s beautiful, haunted vocals and particularly her penchant for multi-tracking—as on the spacious opener “There Is No End”. Here, against a simple, unhurried six-note motif plucked out on a muted electric guitar, she creates a wispy, ethereal, many-voiced presence, which she wraps around herself like a cloak, giving her the security to really stretch out in wordless abandon without making herself vulnerable. It’s a wonderfully rich and enveloping technique, coming on like a more organic version of Fursaxa’s experiments with the time lag accumulator.
Elsewhere, though, there are more conventional approaches to the notion of song, yielding genuinely moving results. “Spring” is like a shower of refreshing rain on a dusty landscape, with its hopeful message and almost unbearably beautiful delivery. Christina sings “Do not wait / Go outside / Sky is blue / Full of stars… Love is in the air / Let it shine / It will shine.” Tom’s guitar actually sounds like it’s smiling, right up until an almost impossibly happy ‘60s riff comes in just 30 seconds from the end of the tune, assuring us all, once and for all, that everything really is going to be alright.
While Christina’s style and delivery remains utterly her own throughout these acoustic country dirges and psychedelic blues-folk ballads, the closest point of comparison to any other vocalist is on “Dormant Love” where she burns through an atmospheric electric mist to sound almost like a free-folk reincarnation of Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser.
The one instrumental track here is a 17-minute showcase of Tom Carter’s shimmering guitar styles. Starting out with rudimentary acoustic strumming, the piece gradually accrues layers of pedal steel wails, electric finger picking, and blistering fuzz soloing—coming on like a one-way donkey ride into the Texas desert with the hallucinations cascading down around you and the horizon bending in the heat.
This album is like a vivid dream of once-lost items falling gently like leaves from a clear blue desert sky: familiar and strange, happy and disconcerting, beautiful and unsettling—and with a deeply trippy soundtrack. What’s not to like?