Charalambides: Joy Shapes

Prior to hearing Joy Shapes, a listener unfamiliar with Charalambides could develop some preliminary inkling of its aural contents. Firstly, its five tracks total seventy-six minutes, the opener a mere twenty-two of them. Secondly, the group's a trio, with Heather Leigh Murray on pedal steel guitar and vocals, Tom Carter on various guitars, chimes, and wind wand' and wife Christina Carter on electric guitar, vocals, and bells—no drums or bass to speak of. So one imagines experimental, perhaps stream-of-consciousness improvisations, and one wouldn't be far wrong. The music turns out to be a unique hybrid of folk, drone, blues, and country styles, a sound that's—oxymoronic though it might be—advanced and primitive at the same time. Formed in Houston, Texas as a trio, the group released its first music on cassette (Our Bed Is Green) in 1992 and subsequently recorded numerous albums for Siltbreeze. Guitarist Jason Bill joined in 1993 but left three years later, eventually replaced by Murray in 2002. Recorded over the summer and fall of 2003, Joy Shapes is the group's second release on kranky, preceded by the November 2003 reissue of Unknown Spin. The normal conventions of music-making don't seem to apply here, as the group long ago traded the idea of normal song structures for drifting, psychedelic soundscapes that stretch out like vast desert plains.

On the opener “Here, Not Here,” the music develops slowly, building glacially towards nightmarish clusters of strings and dissonant scrapings. With the addition of Carter's anguished screams and haunting moans, the piece becomes the musical soundtrack to some horrible evisceration. It's the most extreme of the five pieces, however, and its wailing vocal style is tempered elsewhere. On “Stroke,” for instance, the drone-like vocals are almost peripheral to the track with the emphasis on dense, hypnotic layers of guitars that stretch out for minutes on end. Similarly dreamy moods are conjured on “Joy Shapes” and “Voice For You,” while bells and chimes add an hallucinatory, mystical flavour to “Natural Light.” Charalambides' music will not, understandably, be to everyone's taste yet even the least appreciative listener would applaud the mere fact of the music's existence. It's inarguably heartening to discover that music of such personal vision and commercial indifference is being created in 2004, in spite of the everyday deluge of prepackaged music with which we're confronted.

April 2004