Charalambides Unknown Spin

[Kranky; 2003]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: free folk, New Weird America, psychedelic, Americana
Others: Espers, No-Neck Blues Band, Vetiver, Incredible String Band

Charalambides' latest offering, Unknown Spin (released on Kranky Records), is another "experimental Americana" album that fits into the dubious category of "New Weird America." It's also a very different kind of record for Kranky, although it does fit with the label's minimal aesthetic. In fact, Unknown Spin could almost be considered more of an "ambient Americana" record than a traditional indie rock or even folk record. The instrumental nature of this record calls to mind Neil Young's experimental album (and companion piece to his live Weld) Arc or his soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man. It is dissonant, feedback-laden, and seemingly designed to evoke a dusty western atmosphere of dread, depression, and decay. Unknown Spin could have been the score to HBO's series Carnivale, with its depression-era vibe and lonely, ghost-town feel (not dissimilar to Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s F#A#∞).

Minimal in the strictest sense of the term, this record progresses very, very slowly. It's a long record, and it takes patience to digest it in its entirety. Because not one drumbeat is featured on this entire album, Unknown Spin would make excellent background music to listen to while reading a Cormac McCarthy novel (particularly Blood Meridian) or for conjuring up images of dust-strewn Southwestern terrain. Furthermore, rather than appearing as actual compositions, the pieces on this record have an improvisational feel to them.

The record begins with an extremely minimalistic, subdued acoustic guitar. Some feedback fades in and out of the mix, adding an eerie vibe to the music. Scraping noises can be heard, along with amp buzz. A repetitive melody anchors the song, while experimental guitar noises and slide guitar build up on top of the track, adding a haunting element. Singers Christina Carter and Heather Murray's voices are used as instruments, rather than as vocal accompaniment. They're not singing words, but more like sighs and moans. The ghostly female vocals pan back and forth between channels in a harmonic interplay with the guitar feedback. And that's just the first track.

The releases of the Jewelled Antler Collective, as well as other releases in the "New Weird America" movement, are leading me to believe that this genre of music may replace glitch/idm/electronica as the "new" experimental music. The genre almost seems to be a reaction to the laptop music that has been dominating the independent and experimental music scene for the past few years. Furthermore, Charalambides have shown that environmental and acoustic sounds, assembled with even the most minimal of production techniques, can be every bit as innovative as a Terre Thaemlitz, Aphex Twin, or even Jan Jelinek.

1. Unknown Spin
2. Voice Within
3. Magnolia
4. Skin of Rivers