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Charalambides - Joy Shapes

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Artist: Charalambides

Album: Joy Shapes

Label: Kranky

Review date: Jun. 27, 2004

Charalambides is the Greek surname that Houston musicians Christina Carter, Tom Carter, and Heather Leigh Murray use when they perform and record. It’s a word I never feel quite comfortable pronouncing; I’ve heard it spoken aloud any number of ways and the only phonetic spelling I’ve encountered – Char-a-lam-ba-deez – is still rather oblique, denying a steady signifier in an attempt to make sense of a murky signified. I suppose it’s a lesson in methodology: I might try to pull apart the elements that conjoin to form Joy Shapes and isolate them like strata – electric guitar, chimes, pedal steel, lap steel, and voice – and I could do the same with the tracks, of which there are conveniently five. They would explain about as much as Char-a-lam-ba-deez. There is the way the parts might sound when placed together and there is the way they actually do. Between the former and the latter is a vague and unsettling zone.

Joy Shapes open with its most perplexing movement, “Here Not Here.” It is 22 minutes of rippling, ink-black guitar, the peculiar nonsense of wind chimes in a pre-thunderstorm pressure change, a siren wail that attracts and repels in equal measure. The song’s forces tug in every direction, leaving at their center a disconcerting and uneasy stillness. Minor-key arpeggios quiver and quake against dissonant tones, swelling in spots without hope of catharsis. Christina Carter’s vocals are weirdly overripe – she drives the instrumentation’s slow, moody currents into torturous eddies, the psychological equivalent of flaying skin. At times absurdly operatic, “Here Not Here” locates the intensity of a high fever, piles on the blankets, and tries sweating itself clean.

“Here Not Here” heavily colors the experience of listening to the rest of Joy Shapes. It’s the gauntlet you pass through before you can begin to assimilate the album as a whole. It’s as though the trio overreaches so that you can better find them coming back.

“Stroke” sounds like the forest-glen improv of Jewelled Antler at its most opaque. It’s comprised of gnarled, well-articulated parts that bundle into a tightly knotted whole. Then the gates fling open for title track, which courses in waves of liquid sound. Carter’s voice, forming words this time, dissolves into the dark waters of Murray’s moaning steel and the two become one, with Tom Carter’s guitar drawing song forms into the surface, like the pocket-whirlpools that form when drawing a paddle through a still lake. The balance here is perfect, reminiscent of Windy & Carl at their most serene. It’s the same dreamy calm that drifts through the beautiful closer, “Voice For You,” only Charalambides riddle the finale with holes. The bottom drops out, as Carter’s guitar forms pools of dark, rich sound, separated by pregnant chasms of silence. Carter’s vocals are in the focused monotone of a chant or prayer, and Murray’s steel again binds the parts together into a whole. You almost expect them to fade out this way – as calm and peaceful as the opener was tormented and obscured. But Carter interrupts with sheets of fuzz guitar, ironed smooth like the lingering last lick of a Crazy Horse solo, repeated and refracted again and again. Here as elsewhere time is as much an instrument as absence, guitar or voice.


By Nathan Hogan

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