Charalambides A Vintage Burden

[Kranky; 2006]

Rating: 3/5

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

Critical figures in the contemporary freak-folk scene, Charalambides' exploratory sensibility and daring sense of innovation have revealed them in hindsight to be progenitors, of sorts, of what one cringingly refers to as New Weird America. Critically lauded, their first few albums introduced an entirely new element into Americana as a whole ”” something spectral, timeless, and out of place. Charalambides' music resonated with a haunting "otherness" that had little precedent in the alt-country circle.

Though most of Charalambides' previous records have been exercises in subtlety, the arrangements on A Vintage Burden (at least the vocal ones) are even more skeletal and austere. Christina Carter's lyrics, in conjunction with the tone of the vocals themselves, are imbued with a certain hopefulness that was much less conspicuous on the band's earlier records. Carter's stream-of-consciousness prose vocal style can at times, however, be inclined toward the gratuitous and overwrought, which, unfortunately, is to the detriment of the album. Carter's free-verse lyrics basically come off as contrived and, as such, tend towards distraction. It is nonetheless worth noting that Carter's alluring delivery, unaccompanied this time around by frequent collaborator Heather Leigh Murray's ghostly, wordless vocals, does indeed stand out as both provocative and mature. Perhaps it is the conspicuous lack of a third Charalambides member that has created such a void on A Vintage Burden, but there is certainly something that was tangible on previous recordings that has created a distinct contextual paucity via its absence. While they are far from throwaways, the album's shorter, vocal-based tracks simply do not carry as much weight as one might have expected based on the group's prior material.

It is the instrumental aspect of A Vintage Burden that is the album's saving grace. Tom Carter and Christina Carter are clearly as interested in allowing the listener to hear the plectrum scraping up against the guitar strings as they are the chords themselves. On this album, as with most of the band's vast body of work, what sounds on the surface like meandering, often repetitious guitar strumming frequently reveals a calculated textural depth and complexity of musicianship upon further scrutiny.

But what makes A Vintage Burden such a keeper, frankly, is the presence of the marvelous fourth track, "Black Bed Blues," an archetypal and epic 20-minute instrumental piece that is engaging enough to warrant a third or fourth consecutive spin. It's a dense and stunningly gorgeous piece that is perhaps the most complex and meticulously executed arrangement the Carters have yet committed to tape. Sandwiched between Christina Carter's spare, gossamer vocal tracks, "Black Bed Blues" is both soaring and dense, increasing in intensity until it begins to resemble something that falls somewhere between space-rock and post-rock by way of Southern-fried hellfire-and-damnation blues. "Black Bed Blues" breaks up the uniformity of A Vintage Burden, augmenting the record with a pleasant degree of variation, despite the piece being somewhat temporally out of place on the record.

Though loath to denigrate the work of any serious artist, this reviewer simply found the album lacking a certain measure of substance. A Vintage Burden is well-executed, spare, and in the simplest terms, makes wonderful Sunday morning background music. Much to my chagrin, I found myself wondering, upon repeated listens, just how far a musician could stretch the two-chord template before it finally snapped. To be fair, however, Christina Carter's voice is gradually inching nearer and nearer the seductive croon of the more seasoned chanteuse such as Margo Timmins. Furthermore, Tom Carter's guitar work is more disciplined on this outin, demonstrating considerably more restraint and orthodoxy than on prior albums. At any rate, A Vintage Burden does smack of the transitional, and as such, stokes one's curiosity regarding the direction of the outfit's next full-length effort.

1. There is No End
2. Spring
3. Dormant Love
4. Black Bed Blues
5. Two Birds
6. Hope against Hope