Charalambides: Our Bed Is Green

Compare for a moment Charalambides' 2004 recording Joy Shapes with Our Bed Is Green, the group's debut, released in 1992 on cassette, on disc three years later, and now reissued by kranky in a double-CD format (sans two cover songs). Today the group is a three-piece with married duo Tom and Christina Carter on guitars and vocals respectively and Heather Leigh Murray on pedal steel and vocals. Joy Shapes' five tracks weigh in at a hefty seventy-six minutes, with the trio eschewing conventional song structures for drifting, psychedelic settings that fuse folk, drones, blues, and country into a unique hybrid.

Charalambides was born in 1991 when Tom (following a stint with The Mike Gunn combo) and Christina were asked to participate in improvisational sessions at a local Houston club. Soon after they recorded the ninety-minute Our Bed is Green in true lo-fi fashion on four track. Remarkably, the collection reveals that key elements of the band's current sound were already in place, even if the twenty-six songs are vignettes compared to the epics on Joy Shapes. One key difference is that Tom is the dominant presence with Christina appearing on some tracks and absent from others.

Those that do include Christina typically pair her hushed and dreamy musings with Tom's acoustic strums and raw, bluesy electric (“Tea,” “I Don't Know You,” “The Core,” “C.G.”), her voice sometimes drowned altogether by his bruising guitar fuzz. At times the duo deviates from the template: “Take the Pointing Finger for the Moon” spotlights mantra-like guitar musings with Carter's wordless vocals drifting through the background, while “Bid You Goodnight” presents vocals by both in classic folk-blues style.

When heard alone, Tom shows himself a powerful player, whether generating scarred ripples over droning organ tones in “Pase el Agoa” or building strangulated layers of noise in “The Treadmill”; he pushes his sound to its greatest extreme in the wailing freakout “Neutron Decay.” Hallucinatory organ swirls and music box tinkles bring contrast to “Silver Reeds,” while the equally unusual “Cosmic String” drenches a carousel melody in roaring wah-wah.

Could the collection have been judiciously pruned to a single disc? Some material, like “The Hair on my Head (Is Brown)” and the brief throwaway “I Don't Know What to Sing,” wouldn't be missed from an edited set. But stripping parts away diminishes the impact the set makes when heard intact. The material rarely sounds like it was recorded over a decade ago, an impression partially attributable to its sparse instrumentation of voice and guitar; the sound of Christina's quivering voice paired with Tom's sparse guitar plucks on “Regret,” for example, could have happened just as easily fifty years ago as today. On both Our Bed is Green and Joy Shapes, Charalambides' music sounds out of time, as if inhabiting a universe entirely its own.

April 2005