(Kranky; 2007)

By Joel Elliott | 5 November 2007

With a band as prolific as the Texas duo Charalambides it can be tempting to cushion responses to the music itself -- and perhaps soften the blow of disappointment -- by attempting to separate the "serious," labored-over releases from the experimental one-offs. And since Likeness is the band's 5th release on Kranky but like their 25th overall, and since this particular album is composed of a set of American folk songs in the public domain, I'd like to do that here. But the problem with Likeness is the same problem I had with the latest Sunburned Hand of the Man album: both come off as more than a tossed-off experiment but less than a full-blown masterpiece. In other words, I can't hide the relative mediocrity in the method.

Another problem is that Likeness comes fresh off of last year's A Vintage Burden, an album that gradually made its way to the top of my list of favorite records of 2006. A lot of fans would cite Joy Shapes (2004) as the band's pinnacle achievement; while their follow-up was less abrasive and experimental, it found them mastering the delicate relationship between impossibly simple chord structures, multi-tracked and heavily processed guitar, Christina Carter's hushed soprano, and an impeccable understanding of silence. But given the long instrumental passages that have always marked the band's work -- and the fact that very rarely do other instruments enter into the equation -- Charalambides are first and foremost a guitar band, as innovative with it in the context of modern rock music as Sonic Youth or Television.

The band describes Likeness as a return to improvisational territory, taking as their starting point American folk songs from public archives, some dating back to the 19th century. It's not surprising given the iconoclastic roots of the band that the tracks that work the best are when they do the most damage to the original song. The songs, according to the label's site, are "edited, rearranged, and largely deconstructed by Christina into abstract 'protest' songs for the century at hand," and while the original political meaning might get lost in this treatment, the songs feel more powerful when the lyrics are subsumed to texture. "Memory Takes Hold" begins with four minutes of Christina's wordless vocals, multi-tracked to create a pre-verbal chorale effect, before any actual lyrics kick in. It's not until about halfway through the track's 13-minute length, when she sings "Home from the war / Drummers are returning," that the remnants of a political folk song can actually be gleaned.

Elsewhere, the band uses the archaic feel of the material to their advantage. "Do You See?", while a relatively conventional treatment, manages to be thoroughly haunting as Christina asks "Do you see the people all around you?", then later "They see you / And they hear you." While its politics are a little obvious, the ghostly treatment that the band gives it adds an interesting historical dimension to it; through Christina's multi-tracked vocals you can almost imagine a league of ghosts from the Haymarket massacre coming back to remind everyone how little things have changed. "Saddle Up The Pony," with its heavily-reverbed guitar recalling Neil Young's stellar soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's revisionist Western Dead Man (1995), provides an interesting revision of the outlaw myth itself. Or at least when Christina sings, "Ain't it hard to stumble / When you got no place to fall" she transforms what might have been originally an assertive gesture of masculine individuality into something which embodies genuine fear and instability, a feeling compounded towards the end of the track where Tom Carter's guitar gradually becomes less anchored to the rhythm of the song.

The album falters due to some questionable choices of source material. A glance at the titles "The Good Life" and "What You Do For Money" is enough to hint at the banality of the subject matter involved, and while these were no doubt important folk songs during their time, they don't carry much weight in 2007, particularly with the lazy blues-rock treatment of the former. And while I'm not going to deny that a band like Charalambides has every potential to be politically relevant, their intense spiritual core doesn't lend itself so much to the more workaday spaces of Americana; moments like these make Likeness teeter towards an uninspired genre exercise, or worse yet, an attempt to out-Harry Smith the rest of the still-burgeoning folk revival.

Luckily Charalambides are still a long way from being anything remotely resembling a conventional folk group, and songs like "Feather in the Air" and "Figs and Oranges" sound like they could have just as easily been solely the band's own creation. Still, while I find the album's concept fascinating, and some of the arrangements compelling, it never comes close to the heights of A Vintage Burden, or even Joy Shapes or Unknown Spin (2003); perhaps because the treatments, while far from conventional, are still brought down to Earth by the simplicity of the source material. For a band that has reached its heights through 20-30 minute long improvisations -- often around a single chord or riff -- it's a shaky move, and one that mostly works on its own terms, but I still look forward to when the Carters begin again with a completely fresh slate.