Charalambides – Exile

written by: October 20, 2011
Release Date: October 4th, 2011


Texas, for all its country-western red statery or blue-blood Austin indie rock, has put together arguably the most comprehensive state-centric résumé for avant garde music. While Explosions in the Sky don’t really count, the state also spawned the decades-old and scene-defining weirdo group The Red Krayola, a band so far off base they were the odd ones on a double bill with Joanna Newsom. In a similar style, yet not as completely off-the-wall, are Charalambides, a divorced couple making avant-folk for almost the past 20 years. Their discography is something to be taught in music myth (10 full-length LPs, along with dozens of compilations, EPs, and yes, CD-Rs), and approaching such a thing is a fool’s errand; one can only hope to make up the difference by picking up where the band is now. To that end, the band’s new LP, Exile, works as decent primer: frequent moments of atmospheric beauty, just as many of astounding weirdness, and a smattering of things (including two entire tracks) that fall spectacularly flat.

On an immediately positive note, the record starts out without requiring much of the listener. Opener “Autumn Leaves” is plaintive, trembling acoustic guitar and nary anything else. It’s an inviting, if static, introduction to a record that has no intention of being either. From there the record splits into two distinct sides: when Charalambides wax toward Explosions in the Sky-style atmospherisms, and when they dive a little bit too far toward compatriots Red Krayola. Christina Taylor, one half of the core members of the band, contributes verses that are only confounding in their variety. On songs such as “Immovable” or “Desecrated,” she sings nonrhyming poems, content to let words fall with barely melodic ties. Her verse, when interpretable, trends toward unsettling views of human guilt and emotion. “There is no way to be brought back to life,” or so she says in “Desecrated.” Most of the tracks take this dark, hallucinatory tone, accentuated by deep baritone guitar, spindly lead guitar, and reverberating rhythms of distortion. This formula, if you could call it that, yields the most fruit.

The strongest two tracks, “Before You Go” and “Into the Earth” build off of this mantra, utilizing Taylor’s dextrous voice to achieve a level of intimacy that the other tracks don’t share.

The times the group veers off the well-worn path of moderate accessibility are the times Exile feels too difficult to access. Closer “Pity Pity Me” is a repetitive mess, stripping away what makes the group great (Taylor’s vocal histrionics, the echoing guitar work) for dinky piano and two-bar verses in creep mode. “Words Inside,” the weakest of the bunch, descends into an almost interminable mass of incoherent chanting, something akin to a relaxation tape soundtrack or the slightly overbearing music you hear in a holistic doctor’s office. While both have their unique pleasures, and arguably work better as standalone pieces, their sheer size interrupts any positive momentum generated by the record’s more religiously structured elements.

This weight hefted on Exile by the two 14-minute set pieces, in a neat bit of contradiction, expresses the limit of Charalambides’ avant garde abilities as presently constituted. Much like Krayola, their past exploits don’t necessarily fade in the light of Exile’s not-quite excellence, so the legacy they’ve cultivated doesn’t disappear. But Exile as a standalone piece of avant-folk falls a bit short of the lofty goals its centerpieces set it up for.

Charalambides – Exile tracklist:

  1. “Autumn Leaves”
  2. “Desecrated”
  3. “Words Inside”
  4. “Immovable”
  5. “Before You Go”
  6. “Into the Earth”
  7. “Wanted to Talk”
  8. “Pity Pity Me”