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Charles Atlas - Worsted Weight

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Artist: Charles Atlas

Album: Worsted Weight

Label: Ochre

Review date: Feb. 13, 2003

Ambient 5: Music For 97 lb. Weaklings


Worsted Weight, the latest album from the San Francisco based trio Charles Atlas, opens with a pastoral, ambient humming like light seeping slowly through the aperture of the speakers, of a quality both arresting and familiar. Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid these and other comparisons flock quickly to mind. But Charles Atlas start building, and more quickly and methodically than that initial humming might lead one to infer. Soon the drum machine has come and gone before the presence of a throbbing, muffled bass is realized. Above the meditative guitar repetition a piano tangles with the haunted whisper of a vibrating saw. Cooing and distant vocals begin to emerge and suddenly "The Deadest Bar" has accumulated into a creeping, moody storm still floating lightly on the feathery promise of its opening.

By largely de-emphasizing the electronic drone and gurgle of 2001's Felt Cover on Static Caravan, Charles Atlas who have since added Rosa Mota guitarist Sacha Galvagna to their lineup edge "backwards" into the vaguely defined parameters of the post-rock realm. Such shifts tend to disregard the critical backlash, which currently prefers its glitch to its Glasgow, but Atlas is the type of band to reveal these desperate demarcations as trite. The trio is rounded out by co-founders Charles Wyatt, also of Piano Magic, and ex-Rosemarys keyboardist Jared Matt Greenberg, and throughout the course of Worsted Weight the three musicians breathe new life into forms that feel familiar but since abandoned.

"Sun with Teeth" is built on the same sort of incessant, minor key arpeggio that gives DJ Shadow's "Stem/Long Stem" its tense, doomsday clock feel, but the claustrophobic edge is tempered by the soothing trill of trumpets and tinkle of bells. "Elysium" boasts a gentle synth melody whose syrupy notes bend and linger elegantly before dissipating over a muffled heartbeat, its closest cousin the hushed, spatial reverberations of a Labradford or Pan-American. "Italian Air" has the cinematic quality of guitars repetitively revving their engines in preparation for a Mogwai style lift-off, but it's one that never arrives. Interest in takeoff is quickly discarded as synths weave compellingly through the hazy drone and the soft whirlwind begins its quieting descent down the scale. These three tracks fall together in sequence, and though their tensions and moods differ significantly, all are underpinned like most of Worsted Weight by a sort of disciplined melancholy. Texture is affecting and organic, though tidily constructed. Sculpted, if I dare use such an adjective to describe a band named after "the world's most perfectly developed man."

"Antiphon" and "Factotum" continue in a similar vein, placing the locus of attention on the interplay between clearly articulated piano and guitar parts that waltz above the hushed ambience. These tracks bleed together gracefully, which makes the arrival of "Strategies for Success Boxes" an abrupt surprise. Its bouncy synth and hollow percussive pop aren't unappealing, but drive a bothersome wedge into the latter end of the record, stranding the closer, "Port, Noise Complaint" and its mournful solo piano. That track's accompaniment eventually comes to swell and subside in waves before skidding the album to a halt with unsettling dissonance. Such inconsistencies feel too much like grasping where none is needed Worsted Weight is at its best when its gentle melancholy is delivered with a precision that emphasizes its careful composition.

By Nathan Hogan

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