We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In the execrable Spin Alternative Record Guide, the addlebrained Rob Sheffield writes, “I think I speak for the entire American people when I say, ‘Galaxie 500 had a rhythm section?’” If Bob Guccione Jr. spent less time pinching the booties of his female staff (li’l Gooch’s sexual harassment trial starts next month) he might actually edit his writers: Anyone who has truly listened to Galaxie 500 knows that its heart and soul was its rhythm section. While Galaxie’s songs were typically written by guitarist/singer Dean Wareham, it was bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski who etched textures into his tunes’ soft surfaces. After breaking up in 1991, Galaxie split into two distinct groups: Wareham’s Luna and Krukowski and Yang’s Damon & Naomi (with the twosome also joining Magic Hour as support players). While the subsequent recordings by Damon & Naomi, and especially Luna, pale next to Galaxie’s, they serve to spotlight the rhythm section’s importance to the sounds gathered on Galaxie 500: 1987-1991.
In 1987, after a six-year woodshedding at Harvard and beyond, Wareham and Krukowski enlisted Yang, the duo’s “graphics advisor,” as the group’s bassist, though she had never played before. But her rolling, lyrical style was anything but the hammer-on-the-note-until-the-chord-changes playing of most nascent four-stringers. Yang trotted up and down the fretboard on the top two strings, filling in Wareham’s folk chord outlines with the roaming melodicism of a fidgety backup singer.
As a self-taught bassist myself, and having been in a band with a similar approach to song as Galaxie 500, I think Yang’s surrogate lead-line style developed for three reasons: 1.) There’s nothing more boring than playing bass by yourself, so you create melodies, play chords, and fill up space as much as possible; 2.) Wareham’s songs were so slow and skeletalusually just two or three chordsthat she probably felt as if she was still playing alone; 3.) She loved Peter Hook (Joy Division/New Order) who helped liberate the bass from the fretless funk of the Japan/ABC school of New Wave. (I’m sure it was she who suggested that Galaxie cover “Ceremony” as a B-side to the Blue Thunder EP, which is coupled with On Fire in the box set.)
Since Galaxie was a trio, it often overdubbed a second guitar during Wareham’s solos, but this in no way masked Yang’s talents; it was her ability to crowd notes into a chord sequence that kept Galaxie’s sound jetting ahead as Wareham spit out choppy one- and two-string solos. Yang was complemented in the back of the band by Krukowski, whose cymbal splashes and tom-tom fills rolled off a solid central rhythmthink of a sitting Mo Tucker. It’s consistently claimed that both Galaxie and Luna owe everything to the Velvet Underground. And Wareham’s simplistic song structures and trebly guitar do invoke the style of Lou Reed, but there’s where the similarity ends. (Unless, that is, you consider the Yang/Krukowski-less Luna the equivalent to the Doug Yule-led Velvet Underground.)
As leader of Luna, Wareham has forsaken the “sloppiness” of Galaxie for a streamlined sound. Both Galaxie and Luna adhere to classic rock ‘n’ roll structures (rarely straying from the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo pattern). But Luna’s three albums exhibit all the phoned-in passion of a recording date manned by clock-watching studio musicians, while the comparative amateurism of Galaxie 500 allowed it to create one of the most unaffectedly emotive series in indiedom.
Galaxie’s tunes, like Luna’s, almost always end with Wareham playing a bluesy lead that can either crumble (the muddied and seizured solo on On Fire’s “Tell Me”) or soar (the squealy reaching on This Is Our Music’s “Fourth of July”). But either way, you hang with him to find out where his sonic travels will end. In Luna, the trajectory of Wareham’s solos is easier to follow than Wile E. Coyote plummeting over a cliff.
Wrapped in reverb by surrogate band member and sympathetic producer Kramer, Galaxie’s 1988 debut, Today, firmly lays the foundation for the rest of the crew’s constructions. Along with the primal drone version of Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste,” Today’s brightest point is the swirling weeper “Tugboat.” With Yang’s bass sliding between two notes over two octaves, and Wareham’s guitar rocking between a couple of chords, he croons his coy collegiate angst: “I don’t wanna stay at your party/I don’t wanna talk with your friends/I don’t wanna vote for your president/I just wanna be your tugboat captain.” While those words may sound trite stripped of accompaniment, Wareham’s languid delivery makes their mundanity meaningful. Reducing Today’s overall simplicity even further, the song is stunning in its immediacy. (As a bonus, “Tugboat”‘s B-side, “King of Spain,” appears on Today, along with a roughly digitized version of the A-side’s video on the CD-ROM section.)
The way Today gently referenced the more velvet-lined side of rock in 1988, when the rest of the world was being bludgeoned by the saturated sonics of Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine, makes for fond memories for those who heard it then. While many fans claim Today as their favorite G500 album, there isn’t a consensus among Galaxians, though the largest percentage of votes would surely be cast for 1989’s On Fire. Despite my love of Today, it was in fact On Fire’s opening track, “Blue Thunder,” that sent me endlessly searching Galaxie.
Over an elegiac single chord, “Blue Thunder” rolls in with Yang echoing Wareham’s slow-motion picking. The lolling song gains momentum as Wareham’s falsetto “nah”s launch the tune skyward. Such from-the-gut yelps and high-pitched emoting became a Galaxie trademarkand a style Wareham refuses to employ in Luna, where his monotonic singing makes it seem as though he’s on an endless sleepwalk.
With Galaxie gradually refining the machinations of its slow-motion music, Wareham began to polish his lyric writing. While sadness is again a major theme for him, as on “Decomposing Trees,” Wareham began branching out, on “When Will You Come Home” mixing kitsch with his kvetching: “When will you come home?/Watchin’ TV all alone/Watchin’ Kojak on my own.” (In addition to being the disc’s CD-video, “Home” features one of Wareham’s grimiest blues leads, which through dogged repetition and ecstatically bent strings makes you ache.)
Wareham’s pathos and punch lines were still intact in 1990 for This Is Our Music (whose title is lifted from Ornette Coleman’s 1961 LP), but for many, this is where the band “lost it.” For me, however, this is where Galaxie found it.
The players’ musicianship had evolved considerably by Music, and Kramer knew exactly what the band excelled atcrawling pop songs floating along as evocative mood pieces. Krukowski’s drums are fuller than ever, Yang’s bass playing is more confident in its gallivanting, and Wareham’s singing has evolved into a powerful fourth instrument, complementing his still minimal guitar stylings.
Music opens with “Fourth of July,” the group’s most powerful musical statement. Krukowski’s drums build like thunder under Yang’s dexterous bass weavings as Wareham squeezes out a considerably agitated guitar solo. The song also features some of Wareham’s silliest lyrics. In a conversational tone, Wareham says, “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/And your dog refused to look at it.” But when Wareham changes out of his speaking voice and into a straining, high-pitched yodel for “And if it don’t improve/Then I have to move/I never thought that I would end up here/Maybe I should change my style/But I feel alright when you smile,” he shifts the delivery from that of college-boy comedian to universal sad sack. So much so that when he sings, “I decided to have a bed-in/But I forgot to invite anybody,” you still empathize with him, even as you giggle at his self-pity.
The melancholy of previous Wareham tales is only occasionally apparent on This Is Our Music, as on “Hearing Voices” and “Sorry.” But mostly his words are as evocative as the band’s music, presenting tiny pictures that snuggle inside the chord changes. “Summertime”‘s lyrics, “Nighttime at the pool bar/And I’m walking home with you/The heat is so delicious/And you know just what to do” are absolutely perfect for the anchorless sounds Galaxie create; between two notes, Yang supplies supple melody lines under the tremoloed bliss of Wareham’s gentle guitar.
With the swaying-to-zooming “Melt Away,” and the rousing Yoko Ono cover, “Listen, the Snow Is Falling” (featuring Yang’s soothing vocals), Galaxie turned in a near-perfect swan song. (Also included with Music is the video for “Fourth of July” and an unnecessary cover of the Velvet’s “Here She Comes Now.” Seems Wareham was already campaigning for that coveted opening slot Luna received for the V.U.’s 1993 reunion tour.)
In 1991, Wareham left Galaxie, not quite amicably, for a solo single and then a new band. With Luna, Wareham still strives for witty tales, but where his Galaxie voice mingled earnestness and grime, obscuring his quips like Vaseline on a lens, his squeaky clean delivery in Luna is less than comical. On Luna’s latest, Penthouse, “Chinatown” features Wareham singing, “You’re out all night/Chasin’ girlies/You’re late to work/And you go home earlies” in a flattened twang. But he croons it as broad jest, rather than offhand observation, and as any comedian will tell you, it’s not the joke but the delivery.
Damon & Naomi made one good album, 1992’s More Sad Hits (to be reissued by Sub Pop), that sounds a hell of a lot like where Galaxie left off, partially due to retaining Kramer as producer. But it also proves that it was their interplay that gave Galaxie its distinction. Unfortunately, the duo’s follow-up, 1995’s The Wondrous World of…, took up a folkier direction and was extremely uneven; the stark setting revealed the twosome’s shaky grasp on vocal tonality and, again, their less-than-memorable lyrics.
Because all of Galaxie’s records were out of print before this box set, their reappearance alone is worth savoring. But, being a box set, B-sides, outtakes, demos, live bits, and other minutiae must be added so longtime fans are satiated. (Besides, releasing three albums, each one stronger than the last, then calling it quits is just too rounded and too perfect a track record to be left alone.) Only Galaxie junkies need the set’s Uncollected, though. There are more covers, from the Beatles (“Cheese and Onions,” as well as a liveand just putrid”Rain,” which Wareham sings as if someone’s goosin’ his rear), to the Young Marble Giants (“Final Day”), and again, Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste.” There are the earliest demos, mystery-free, linear rockers that sound surprisingly like Luna as well as like any number of the tepid, tiny backpack-wearing bands Galaxie inspired; there is an alternate mix of “Blue Thunder” with a honking sax solo, as well as the video for the original version.
Yang’s packaging and accompanying booklet, which bear an appropriately celestial motif, make the box set a tempting purchase, but since none of the selections on the extra disc is essential, and since the albums are supposed to be issued separately, curious newcomers may be happy with those alone. (A radio simulcast is supposed to come out too, though the crappy live spots on Uncollected have me hardly anxious to hear it.)
But fans still straining to hear traces of Galaxie’s special sound in its members’ current bandsand I count myself among themcan stop. 1987-1991 puts everything within reach.CP