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Charalambides.  Exile.  Kranky, 2011.

In case it’s relevant, I’ll note now that I’m related to Tom Carter of Charalambides, and of course know Christina.  But I am not normally a writer of music reviews.  And by “not normally a writer of music reviews,” I mean that this is my first music review ever.  So let’s give it a whirl and see how it goes, shall we?

With Exile, Charalambides takes the listener on a weird, slightly psychedelic, unquestionably contemplative musical journey.  Christina Carter’s vocals present a dreamy, intimate front to Tom Carter’s solid, bold, improvisational guitar.*

Tracks like “Desecrated” and “Immovable” reveal the band’s facility for decomposing (and re-composing) songs into their component parts.  Christina’s lyrics are in free verse, with no specific rhyme scheme or meter.  She instead recreates the rhyme and meter in the spare melody, which repeats variations on the same musical fragment over and over.  “Into the Earth” is the one song where the lyrics rhyme, but they still rely on a simple, repeated, melodic fragment.

“Words Inside” is the notable departure, with its echoing and overlapping voices and moans, which begin to resemble the scary ghosts on Scooby-Doo before the gang figures out it’s just the sheriff in a white sheet.  But Christina pushes through that reference, making the spectral wails her own, creating a deeply meditative space.
The word “touching” is sung so many times, in so many ways, it loses its power as a signifier, and the lyrics become instead an exploration of a specific sequence of consonants and vowels.

Through it all, Tom’s guitar sometimes hews to the melody, sometimes provides counter point, but always holds its own.  The second half of “Into the Earth” ends with a long segment in which the electric guitar impersonates a funky electrified bagpipe, with the treble line slurring from one note to another, while the base line keeps a steady course, wavering only slightly above or below.  Notably, the first song of the album, “Autumn Leaves,” is an acoustic guitar solo, somewhat unlike the other songs in Exile.  With its brief phrases and many silences, it reminds me of older Westerns where Spanish guitar provides emotional color to the stand-off.

“Before You Go” features the cello of Helena Espvall and the upright bass of Margarida Garcia.  This is full-on electric, with all the feedback and reverb, just on the verge of static.  It’s flowy and dreamy, yet challenging, becoming increasingly shrill to the end of the track.  Vocals and tambourine serve as recognizable touch points before the implacable wall of strings, yet are challenging in their own right.

As a whole, Exile presents a dreamy, trippy, emo experience, not without sparks of black humor.  As noted by many, this album coincides with the 20th anniversary of Charalambides’ existence as a band.  (We are all old.)  The album is available on CD and LP.  The LP includes two bonus tracks which I have not yet heard, since we could only find the CD at Sound Garden.

*The liner notes do not indicate who is on instrumentals on each song (with the exception of Helena Espvall and Margarida Garcia, who play cello and upright bass respectively on “Before You Go”), so I assume that if I hear only one guitar, it’s Tom.  If I’m wrong about that, I apologize.

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