Charalambides - Houston (1999)

Named after the city where the band started, Houston finds the core Tom Carter/Christina Carter duo creating another inspired, cryptic, and mysterious collection of songs in a career already filled with many excellent examples of the same. Though guitar is prominent throughout, a wide range of instrumentation is used, from piano and bells to sax -- one track, "The Blown Door," consists of Christina doing solo a cappella work, overdubbed and echoed to make for a spectral choir singing from out of the skies. While there are only eight tracks, most are quite lengthy, in keeping with Charalambides' general bent for improvisation and experimentation. As always, Christina provides all vocals, her preference for haunting banshee wails and croons excellently suiting the shadowy music. The contrast between a number of the subtle, supple arrangements, the quiet but entrancing minor-key folk, and the waft of echoes and production murk that ground the performances in a more unearthly realm gives clear testament to the power of the duo's unique art. The opening track "Dancing" sets the mood; hardly a dancefloor number in the modern sense, it's more a soundtrack to a reel on the edge of twilight, simultaneously playful and doom-shrouded. From there it's one surprising, fascinating song after another, with Christina and Tom showing more variety with their instruments from track to track than some bands use in their entire careers. "Lexington" is a good example, with Christina providing the lead with beautiful (but very atypically so) piano and Tom joining in more audibly toward the end with low cymbal crashes or something quite similar. Perhaps the most conventional song is Christina's grand solo effort "Two Places at Once," with her vocals and electric guitar feeling like a soft benediction on a warm, early summer night. Odd intrusions like the cut-up conversations and crackling vinyl at the end of "Midnight Chants" further accentuate the addictive sense of entertaining strangeness on Houston.

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