Graded on a Curve: Charalambides,
Tom and Christina Carter

Houston’s Charalambides have amassed over thirty full-length releases since 1993, with their output (a large hunk on vinyl) navigating the realms of acid-folk, psych-rock, and improvisation. It’s a significant accumulation of sound, but newcomers shouldn’t be flummoxed over when and how to jump in, as there is no better time than now through their latest; it’s out October 12 via Drawing Room Records. Charalambides has trio incarnations in their history, but the title of the new one gets right at their enduring reality as a duo: Tom and Christina Carter. With six tracks spread across four sides of vinyl, the byproduct of their union is exploratory, at times gentle and distant but intense and never unfocused.

The genres of acid-folk and psych-rock cover a lot of territory, so it’s worth adding that the mention of improv in the paragraph above (all three terms borrowed from the autobiographical description on their Bandcamp page, where they’ve attached the phrase “outer limits”) establishes an undeniable rigor, even as the music on their latest (and as its title expresses, a good representation of their discography as a whole) isn’t antagonistic or abrasive in nature.

A good litmus test for receptiveness to Charalambides would be how a listener feels about Jandek (and with emphasis on the listening and not just an appreciation of the latter’s unusual backstory). Now, some will say that if a person doesn’t know Charalambides they are unlikely to know Jandek, but I disagree, as a documentary film has been made and book chapters have been written on the guy.

It’s not just the shared locale (Jandek hails from Houston). It’s not just that Heather Leigh, who is one of the two folks to have filled out the trio lineups of Charalambides (and also half of Scorces with Christina Carter) has played live and on record with Jandek. And it’s not just that on the 1995 compilation Drilling The Curve Charalambides covered Jandek’s “Variant.” But put all three instances together and you do have a worthwhile point of reference.

Really, the thing they share most is a transcendence of genre. This might read as a boldly over the top statement to make, but it essentially boils down to this: maybe the best (certainly the most succinct) way to describe Jandek is to say that he sounds like Jandek, and the same is true of Charalambides. With this said, there is some stylistic overlap between the two (in a word, I’d call it a looseness that, well, transcends genre).

If tied to psych-rock, the act of “rocking” is basically absent on Tom and Christina Carter; for one (big) thing, this is a duo of voice (hers, essentially wordless) and guitar (both, but primarily his), though there are surely moments, maybe best embodied in the tracks “Life and Death” and “Gone,” that do validate the connection to rock as a form. Likewise, the mention of acid-folk points to expansiveness that sidesteps any kind of clichéd trippiness in its motion. And yeah, the pacing here eschews any quick or even middle tempos (to reiterate, rhythm instruments are absent).

What they achieve with this set (and elsewhere) is a superb “late-night” aura, one that unwinds very nicely as a follow-up to Skip Spence’s ’69 “lost” masterpiece Oar. There are significant differences, of course. For starters, Spence’s achievements on Oar are far more easily parsed as individual songs, while Charalambides’ work, here and previously in their output (though I admit to not hearing everything), if composed of distinct individual components, coheres into one beautiful thing (it makes sense that any of the tracks on Tom and Christina Carter works as a representative sample).

This makes spotlighting individual tracks something of an endeavor in redundancy, as the care in album construction is readily apparent; this set is bookended with two side-long 20-minute tracks. Of the two, opener “Runaway” is the most grippingly distant as “Proper” delivers an uptick in intensity appropriate for a finale. Still, the album drifts wonderfully away rather than ending with anything resembling a bang.

In the latter cut, Christina’s voice briefly and intermittently enters a zone that reminds me of the supreme “out” vocalist Patty Waters, though if arguably useful, this comparison is ultimately a facile one, as Carter isn’t deliberately pushing up against the limits of what the vocal cords (her own, anybody’s) are capable. Instead, she’s plumbing the depths of emotion, and succeeding mightily.

Sides two and three feature shorter but still lengthy excursions ranging from over eight to nearly eleven minutes.  Throughout, the guitar is consistently effective in its pursuit of the emotional objective, getting there with an utter avoidance of flash. And consistent is a fitting way to synopsize Tom and Christina Carter, both in relation to what occurs across its four sides and also within the oeuvre at large. If you don’t know Charalambides and the description above reads as enticing, this release’s ease of entry is strengthened by the quality it offers.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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