Galaxie 500 - Five Years Way Up High – Galaxie 500
Dan Round 12/09/2010
Galaxie 500 overview & album reissues (out now on Domino):
“Lo-fi before it became accepted.” - Martin Aston
Formed in 1986, New Englanders Galaxie 500 began releasing records at a time when 'college rock' dominated the increasingly popular alternative radio stations in the US. Ideal circumstances one would have thought, yet their brand of dream-pop guitar music didn't really fit in on campus (or off it, either). Lacking the acerbic aggression of the ascendant proto-grunge bands from the US North West, yet too slow-burning and rough around the edges to fit into the college rock precedent set by REM a few years earlier, Galaxie 500 were destined to end up unappreciated in their own time. That said, it is only a half-truth to say that they went largely unnoticed in the brief five year period they were together. The trio of Dean Wareham (Vocals/Guitar), Naomi Yang (Bass/Vocals), and Damon Krukowski (Drums) - alongside assiduous producer Mark Kramer, 'fourth member' and vital cog in the Galaxie 500 sound - would go on to scale heights seldom in the sights of similar bands of their era. They really were an 'alternative' band of considerable stature at the time. Signing to Rough Trade after their first record (as big as an indie act could get in the 1980s), touring extensively around the US and Europe, and boasting record sales far higher than your average 'cult' guitar band could ever dream of, in the short period of time they were together Galaxie 500 managed to temporarily fill the white light/white heat void left when Lou Reed ditched John Cale two decades earlier. If their fanbase was relatively small (albeit dedicated) in their homeland, in Europe the band enjoyed much greater attention, receiving acclaim in the British music press in particular where they were hailed alongside the likes of Spacemen 3. Their cause furthered by headline appearances in the NME and on John Peel's radio show, Galaxie 500 spearheaded 'slowcore' and were one of indie's foremost acts in the UK by the time the 80s rolled into the 90s. With contemporary groups such as British Sea Power, The Clientele and Xiu Xiu professing their adoration for the band and with nods from major players such as The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Sonic Youth, Galaxie 500 now retrospectively find themselves as one of the most influential indie bands of their era. It seems fitting then that earlier this year, 20 years on from their halcyon days, Domino re-issued their three studio albums complete with discography-enhancing bonus material. If ever a band needed reappraising, it's the confounding paradox that is Galaxie 500.
Debut album Today is probably Galaxie 500's finest collection of songs. The listener is spared no introductory niceties being thrown straight into “Flowers” - the archetypal Galaxie 500 elegy and an ode to lunacy - and is edged out uncompromisingly with closer “Tugboat”, the bands' first single and the lovelorn highlight of their first long-player. In between the two standard bearers of their back catalogue, Galaxie 500 reveal a troupe of songs that, against all odds, manage to stand in equal stead with the brilliant first and final songs. Calmly schizo-circulating from the dourly sweet (“Pictures”, “It's Getting Late”) to the upbeat (“Parking Lot”) and through to melodious downcast pop (“Oblivious”, “Temperature's Rising”), Today is a cacophonous patchwork of rough gems, yet it possesses an accomplished and distinctive identity that holds it all together. Though primitive (perhaps even more so than their second and third albums) the scope of their creativity seems completely unrestrained by their apparent musical limitations - their instrumental (which goes by the name “Instrumental”) showcases the wistful Galaxie 500 sound at its most innovative and achingly beautiful, while their cover of Jonathan Richman's “Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste” is completely invigorating with scathing guitars and a grippingly rhythmic, almost tribal backing. Just as most great covers reinvent the original, here Galaxie 500 manage to do so by firmly stamping their own sound in place. Across the record, Galaxie 500 introduce the key basic ingredients of what remains so stridently in place along the course of their catalogue - Wareham's vocal steady yet maddening, his guitar raw and free, his lyrics firmly rooted in the disconsolate and the absurd; Yang's bass as elegiac as her vocal would later prove to be; Krukowski's drumming visceral, percussive, commanding. Complemented by the compulsory bonus track, a lulling and downright mesmeric song called “King Of Spain” which sees Wareham's vocal at its dissonant best, Today is as inescapably brilliant and vital now in 2010 as it was in 1988.
If Today is Galaxie 500's best collection of songs, their second album is their best record as a whole. On Fire is a more fully-realised album than their debut, boasting better production (though not too good as to ruin the sparse nature of the unmistakable Galaxie-Kramer sound) and a general cohesiveness that their wonderfully erratic debut, probably to its benefit, lacked. Originally released in 1989 by their big-shot new label Rough Trade, On Fire was largely a continuation of the work they began on Today. Featuring another memorable cover - George Harrison's “Isn't It A Pity” got the Galaxie 500 treatment this time around as the album closer - the band really stomp out at their emotive and fractured best on this record. Eased in dreamily with the sensitive couple of “Blue Thunder” and “Tell Me”, it is obvious from the start that the record is even more downcast than its predecessor. The following “Snowstorm” is among the band's most atmospheric songs with emotive percussive bursts representative of the tranquil chaos of the approaching snowstorm. Then comes the classic “Strange”, the quintessential song of the album. Full of drug addled trips to… well, drug stores, the song achieves bizarre imagery through typically farcical lyrics (“I stood in line and ate my twinkies”), while featuring the most desperately impassioned Wareham vocal caught on record and an instantly recognisable riff that pierces through the splintered heart of the song. If the electrifying riff and the subsequent “When Will You Come Home” with its less downbeat tone and toe tapping, unhinged guitars brought a perverse feeling of merriment to the album, despondency is blissfully restored with “Decomposing Trees” and “Another Day”, the latter of which is sang hauntingly well by Naomi Yang. Before “Isn't It A Pity” brings Today to a triumphantly bittersweet close, the strangely euphoric “Leave The Planet” and the guttural “Plastic Bird” complete the self-penned offerings on the album proper. Of the bonus material their doleful cover of New Order's “Ceremony” is even better than Radiohead's recent and more polished version, while outtakes “Victory Garden” and “Cold Night” are easily strong enough to have been put on the album itself, a further sign of the band's wealth of songs during this period, their true peak.
Third and final Galaxie 500 album, the Ornette Coleman referencing This Is Our Music, will always be overshadowed by the mastery displayed by its predecessors, but it has all too often been tarnished as something of a dramatic slope in quality from the band. Critics have pointed to the album as confirmation that they split up at the right time before they could do any real damage to the legacy of their staggering first two albums. Such attitudes are unfair, and are gladly becoming less fashionable as more time passes. In truth, This Is Our Music is all-in-all a solid record. Though not as instant as their debut or as affecting as their sophomore record, it is nevertheless darn good and it heralds a slight departure in sound from their previous material, hinting at possible future directions the group would have taken had they stayed together. Although revisionists have grown more attached to the album over the years, it still doesn't command the credit it deserves as a great stand alone record that contains some of the band's finest moments. Album opener “Fourth Of July” is one of the most accessible pop songs in the trio's cannon despite the bleakness of the opening statement of rejection - “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/but your dog refused to look at it” (surely one of Wareham's best lines) - while “Listen, The Snow Is Falling”, originally by Yoko Ono, sees the band at their most delicate and haunting with pretty, high pitched vocals courtesy of Yang. “Hearing Voices” and “Sorry” mark the ground Wareham would continue to tread on the early Luna records, while the likes of and “Spook”, “Summertime” and “Way Up High” would also have held their own on Today and On Fire. The penultimate “Melt Away” is as affecting on the umpteenth listen as it is on the first, its sorrowful guitars and Wareham's yearning vocal building into one of Galaxie 500's most expansive instrumental thrashings, guitar drum and bass sonically colliding in a massive crescendo. The closing drone of “King Of Spain, Part 2” (melodically nothing like their earlier “King Of Spain”) possesses something hypnotic about it and the charming brass at the end marks it out as an interesting song on the record, though it is slightly under par and a less than satisfactory exit for a record that deserves better. Perhaps more fitting a finale for “This Is Our Music” would have been “Here She Comes Now”, the sole bonus track and a Velvet Underground song. Bringing the Galaxie 500 back catalogue full circle with a cover of their most obvious influence, it is final conclusive proof that they had a real knack for covers and it is also one of the band's best collaborative vocals with Wareham and Yang combining exquisitely.
Since they disbanded in 1991, members of Galaxie 500 have failed to simply melt away like most of their peers, as so easily could have happened. In forming Luna (1991-2005) Wareham continued to churn out astonishingly consistent albums, and since then he has made records of equal merit with his wife and former Luna bandmate Britta Phillips. Often heralded as a king in the world of alternative Americana, Wareham has even dabbled in acting and writing too, with his 2008 memoir Black Postcards being released to much enthusiasm. Krukowski and Yang's avant garde press Exact Change (set up in 1990 while Galaxie 500 were still operating) pays homage to Dada and Surrealist literature and has gone on to republish works of considerable importance by authors as well renowned as Franz Kafka and Salvador Dalí. They haven't fallen off the music radar though, and under the Damon and Naomi alias they have released seven acclaimed studio albums, while Krukowski even teaches his own "Sound, Noise, and Music” class at Harvard University. Praised for his “simmering presence of jazz classicism” as the band's drummer, Krukowski was always the member of the band with the most musical ability, so his unconventional sounding class seems fitting. The maverick Kramer, too, has continued to immerse himself in the slowcore movement he helped to instigate as well as producing very different artists such as 22-Pistepirkko and Gonculator.
Through “aspiring to primitivism” as Krukowski manifested, Galaxie 500 managed to become a seminal band of their time, though this must have seemed an unlikely outcome while they were together. By the mid 90s lo-fi music was the unlikely dominant force in so-called 'alternative' rock with the likes of Malkmus' Pavement in the US and Coxon's Blur in the UK leading the way. Although Galaxie 500's pensive tones are a world away from the more generally upbeat nature of such groups, the influence of their minimalist and unrefined sound across three records cannot be understated, and Wareham's bittersweet and simplistically melodic songwriting evidently resonated with the next wave of alternative acts in the 1990s. Within lo-fi and slowcore circles they are pioneers and innovators. Quite something for a band that existed for little more than half a decade and was completely devoid of complexity, yet for someone to be left untouched by their naively beautiful songs would be an indication of a charcoal black heart. The best worst-kept-(top)secret in rock music, ever.