When Gram Parsons coined the term Cosmic American Music to describe what he was cooking up out on the West Coast in the late 1960s, he couldn’t have imagined that the phrase might someday better serve a stream of skin-prickling sounds from Texas. Which is not to knock the Flying Burrito Brothers, but merely to suggest that Houston’s Charalambides have discovered a means for tethering the vastness of the cosmos to the dirt of our shores in a manner that’s too boundless to ever fit inside a Nudie Suit.
Since the release of Our Bed is Green in 1992, Tom and Christina Carter – joined intermittently, but not here, by pedal steel player Heather Leigh Murray – have toyed with the celestial half of the Cosmic American equation. Records like Unknown Spin and Joy Shapes explore notions of space and stasis in eerily evocative ways. Joy Shapes' “Here Not Here,” one of the band’s most perplexing and hypnotic expressions, pits quiet ripples of electric guitar against the strumming of distant, discordant strings, while Christina Carter’s vocals yearn feverishly over top. Like much of the band’s output, it sounds like something that might have been picked up by one of those enormous satellite dishes that NASA keeps trained on the skies. In fact, the composition barely makes sense as a cooperative human venture; every one of its parts feels so arrestingly strange that by braiding them together the band takes a quantum leap into the void.
Likeness is the duo’s eleventh or twelfth “proper” release, though they’ve put out at least that many limited edition CD-Rs, making the distinction somewhat murky. Regardless, Likeness represents a continued, perhaps inevitable, step away from the shimmering shapelessness of the aforementioned records towards more song-based structures – a redirection that began on last year’s A Vintage Burden.
If previous Charalambides records represented a kind of wondrous groping in the dark, Likeness offers only as much illumination as its title implies. Christina Carter’s gossamer voice is double-tracked on one of the record’s most successful moments, the 13-minute “Memory Takes Hold.” Her incantation, which assumes a variety of overlapping pitches as if arriving from all angles, is “Darkness, Likeness / Darkness, Likeness” – as stark a polarity as the band is willing to draw. These “songs” coalesce to the same degree that shapes in a dark and unfamiliar room reveal themselves once your eyes become adjusted to a lack of light. But such shapes can easily mislead – concentrating on one of Tom Carter’s buried electric guitar squiggles can quickly unravel a central melodic fragment, just as squinting at that round, red shape on the record’s cover can transform it from a turkey vulture to a beating heart.
Nevertheless, there are breathy contours here, which is where the other half of the Cosmic American equation comes into play. Throughout Likeness, Christina Carter borrows riffs from the American Songbag – folk fragments as familiar as they are hard to pin down. “Memory Takes Hold” dissolves into a kind of wearied and bandaged Drum Taps, with Carter singing “The drummers are returning home from the war” over tendrils of wafting guitar noise. Less successfully, “The Good Life” marries a plodding blues riff to a gritty vocal lamentation (“I have been a nice girl, done what was expected / I will be an old one, loved but unrespected”) without complicating it in any way. Bitterness emerges as a kind of theme by the time Christina goes out looking for “A fair shake / In this world somewhere” in “Saddle Up The Pony.” Yet, it’s a less interesting emotional tenor than what’s generated by the throbbing bass and storm cloud of reverberating notes that blanket her voice.
Likeness ultimately straddles its two poles of “Darkness, Likeness” by refusing to quite commit to either. Too oblique to offer an easy entryway for anyone who's foolishly been put off by records like Joy Shapes, neither does it quite strike the winning balance of A Vintage Burden. Yet, as is always the case with this band, multiple listens will have you grappling about for the forms that are casting these peculiar shadows. The songs that stick in the head – “The Good Life,” “Saddle Up The Pony” – are in some sense the slightest because they’re fixed, concrete. It’s in the tangled intermingling of drone and chime, guitar and naked voice, where the likenesses become talismanic and strange, impossible to fully decipher.