Just so there’s no doubt in your mind: Christina Carter has an amazing voice. And not just in the technical sense; sure, she can soar and project and caress with the best of them, but she can also drone and flutter like nobody’s business. More than anything else, Carter’s voice is an effective one – she seems to have little or no ego about how conventionally pretty she sounds on a given song as long as she manages to move the listener. Of course, this move is often towards being creeped out or shaken rather than towards something more comforting.
Carter’s work with Charalambides has been consistently strong and strange, but here she avoids almost all of the sonic excess that band sometimes produces in favour of laser-like compositional and sonic focus. It’s a move that suits her voice – this is a solo record in the truest sense, and Carter is only accompanied by the guitar or keyboard she’s playing. There’s a lot of space in these songs, but at the same time a lot of intensity, as if Carter is in her head still fighting to be heard over the kind of torrent of noise Charalambides is capable of making. The result is a brief album that darkly mantra-like, especially on the opening title track and “I Do Not Love a Woman”. On many of the songs here it’s hard to avoid being snared by Carter’s voice and the genuine passion she brings to her singing. Despite the power of her instrument, however, Original Darkness can be a bit of a letdown.
“Suffering” and “In Prisoned Body,” for example, are both undercut by lyrics about “the way of wrong power” and “the true crimes” that strike an uneasy balance between the kind of fuzzy leftist thinking Fox gets mileage out of mocking and the kind of mildly Eastern-flavoured mysticism that makes one want to pull out the Bhagavad Gita just to cleanse your palate. Carter’s own stance may be more complex and charitable than it comes across here, but the result of boiling down a lot of complicated beliefs and issues into minimalistic song form is that Carter sounds less wise and otherworldly and more like the most strident member of your yoga class. I should note that I’m personally sympathetic to Carter’s political and religious affiliations on Original Darkness, so this isn’t an ideological disagreement spilling over onto aesthetic grounds. It’s more a case where as much as I may appreciate the ends, the means are a little wince inducing.
To Carter’s credit, her earnest condemnations are directed at herself and her audience as much as any spooky Republican Other, and she often phrases her harsher points in a song like “Capable of Murder” as rhetorical questions. But it’s always clear what answer any reasonable person is supposed to come to with those rhetorical questions, and phrasing such as “In Prisoned Body”’s “cops kill men without reason” and the blanket damning of soldiers on “Capable of Murder” are at best one-sided and unfair (and a little grotesque in that out-of-touch way radicals usually are). Song-as-polemic is an honourable tradition, but also a widely misused one, and you don’t have to be an uncritical “support our troops!” mouthbreather to think that Carter could stand a little more nuance in the worldview she presents here.
Of course, most listeners who are going to find Original Darkness, or Carter in general, compelling are likely to be on board with her earnest condemnations and fervent delivery – music this severe and forceful demands and rewards the kind of take-it-or-leave-it stances (sonically and lyrically) Carter adopts here. The rest of us can make do with the mysterious and harshly beautiful likes of “Original Darkness”, “Re-Found Mary”, and “Do You Recognize My Voice?”, even if the rest of this album is easier to respect than to love.