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Monday, July 25, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Galaxie 500
Galaxie 500 is one of those bands whose importance and influence did not become apparent until it was too late. While their three albums received generally positive notice in the music in the music press, it was by no means unanimous, and it wasn't until they were already gone that they began to receive some respect for their contribution to indie rock, and the key position they occupied in its history.
Galaxie 500 represent something of a missing link between the jangle pop and paisley underground schools of 80's guitar-based psychedelia and the spare and hypnotic 90's dream pop, shoegaze, and sadcore movements. Bearing a superficial resemblence to Rain Parade, the Feelies, post-John Cale Velvet Underground, and early Pink Floyd, but devoid of those bands' rich instrumental textures, Galaxie 500 specialized in a somber, spare, emotive music that was simply arranged. Its chord progressions were hazy and dreamlike, its tempoes crawled along like dirges, and singer Dean Wareham sang in an eerie falsetto that suggested an overwhelming sadness. More than almost any band, Galaxie 500 represented the melancholic tendencies of Generation X in the late 1980's.
Wareham was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1963, but moved with his parents to New York City in 1977. While attending high school at The Dalton School, he met friends Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski who would later become his bandmates; Wareham was learning guitar. All three eventually wound up in Massachusetts where they attended Harvard University.
At Harvard, in 1984-1985, Wareham and Krukowski put together their first band, Speedy and the Castanets, with Kurkowski on drums. The band, by Krukowski's own admission, was a laughing stock; losers of Battle of The Bands competitions, saddled with poor equipment and poor looks, the band never became more than a sideline for its members, and was ultimately scuttled when its bassist underwent a religious conversion and split.
Naomi Yang arrived at Harvard a year after Wareham and Krukowski, and they encouraged her to take up the bass, an instrument she had never played. After a year haitus, which Wareham spent in Europe, the trio began in earnest in 1987, taking their name from a friend's old Ford. A fortuitous meeting with Moe Tucker of Velvet Underground, whom Wareham interviewed for a music publication, led to the band getting an invite from Mark Kramer (ex-Bongwater) to visit his new Noise Studio in New York to record some demos.
Their session for Kramer lasted eight hours and yielded seven songs, two of which were selected as a single that appeared on Aurora records, set up by Marc Alghini, formerly of Taang! Records; a third, "Oblivious", made its way onto a flexidisc for Chemical Imbalance music magazine.
"Tugboat", the A-side (nominally; the band wouldn't designate an "A" or "B"), is reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's third album in its style of riffing and vocal delivery; its chord progression is simple, there is only one verse and chorus, which repeats, and Wareham's vocal is lonesome and plaintive as it delivers its love-at-all-costs message. It seems eerie and likeable, but inconsequential until Wareham unveils his solo, a tricky psychedelic stretch on acoustic guitar. Taken alone, the song is disarming in its simple, modest arrangement. It is also a fair indication of the avenues the band would explore in greater depth on its albums. "King of Spain", the flipside, is electric based, has two simultaneous psychedelic guitar solos, borrowing its cues from a Thirteenth Floor Elevators number; perhaps more than the better-known "Tugboat", it captures the blueprint of the band's subsequent sound. Both songs have a lo-fi sound, with Wareham's vocals and guitar echoed. Wareham's songs were written around guitar leads, rather than coming from the lyrics, particularly unusual for an English graduate student. Live, the band took a minimalist approach, seldom miking the drums and using small amplifiers, creating an almost living-room ambience.
"Tugboat" garnered a lot of local notice, and the band received several positive write-ups, which led to their recording Today, their first album, in 1988.
Today is one of those albums that vaguely recall a dozen bands without actually sounding like any one of them. The most noteworthy aspect of the disc is Wareham's drifting, lost-sounding vocals, which sound foggy and forlorn in the mix. His rich guitar tone is layered with reverb, while Yang and Krukowski are one of the more idiosyncratic rhythm sections in history; Yang's bass fluid and melodic, while Krukowski soft and lean on the drums. The songwriting credits are all credited to Galaxie 500 (save for a Jonathan Richman cover, "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste"), and the trio sounds integrated in the way long-time friends do. The sound is one more of ebbs and flows than sonic wallop, with fragmentary images and sounds coming to the forefront and receding again.
The album did well enough to land Galaxie 500 at Rough Trade records, where the band released its classic album, On Fire, from 1989. Where Today had sounded gentle and tentative, On Fire is a richly assured and carefully crafted album full of nuggets. Kramer returns for production duties, having established himself as particularly sympathetic and adept at bringing out the detail in the band's sound. On this album, his and the band's barebones blueprint of Today is fleshed out into full dimension, silencing the critics who accused them of being too slight in execution. "Blue Thunder" the leadoff cut and single, establishes this upfront, featuring a richer, fuller sound without sacrificing the sparse instrumentation; from there, the album branches into a number of different directions. All three members have improved their craft; Yang's bass is capable of melody and drone and she adds more backing vocals, adding to the wistfulness of the recording. Krukowski gets heavier on drums, and mixes up his tempos and textures, often within a single song. Wareham is mixed carefully, allowing him to lead without drowning out the others, while contributing strangely expressive guitar. "Snowstorm" highlights this approach, "Strange" packs some muscle, Yang gets a good lead vocal turn on "Another Day" before Wareham comes in at the end, and the album concludes with a very aptly chosen cover version of George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity?", which features Kramer on organ and backing vocals. It is a seamless album, and one that haunts and lingers after it ends; it is here that the textures point towards shoegaze and sadcore while maintaining a bummed-out psychedelic ambience.
A limited-edition 7" disc followed, a coupling of the Beatles' "Rain" and Jonathan Richman's "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste", both done live. The band gained a national cult audience with On Fire, although radio airplay was not forthcoming, and overall sales were minute.
If Today laid the blueprint, and On Fire fleshed it out, the trio's 1990 release, This Is Our Music, is where their vision matured and blossomed. The leadoff single "Fourth Of July" made their Velvet Underground influence explicit with a reference to "Candy Says", but the album is far from a watered down VU cop. Each member continues to develop, giving the listener many things to enjoy at once. Wareham's guitar grew bolder and less tentative, taking on heroic proportions on his solos, while Yang and Krukowski's work crosses the line from inspired to distinctive. Kramer adds more production details than ever before, including muted synth on "Spooky", chiming bells on "Hearing Voices", flute on "Way Up High". Yang's cover version of Yoko Ono's "Listen The Snow Is Falling" is a bold choice that manages to remain true to the original while firmly recasting it within Galaxie 500's context; the gradually building instrumentation, including Wareham's reverb laden strums, are among the most evocative of the band's career. The shimmering "Summertime" is a masterpiece; psychedelia for a lonely, windswept, late afternoon, highlighted by Krukowski's slow-mo drums, Yang's fluid bass, and Wareham's elegant guitar tapestries, all building to a tremendous crescendo, it encompasses all that's noteworthy about the band. The original album concluded with "King of Spain, Part. 2" a reworking of their original single; as it turned out, the song became an ad-hoc bookend to the band's career.
A tour followed the album, but then, out of the blue, Wareham phoned up Yang and Krukowski to announce that he was leaving the band. He ultimately formed Luna in 1991, a dream pop band of bolder ambition and improved musicianship than the modest Galaxie 500, but arguably a less-interesting outfit. Rough Trade promptly went out of business, rendering the group's albums impossible to find; fortunately Krukowski bought the tapes back at an asset sale and sold them to Rkyodisc, which has rereleased the discs, as well as compiling a box set; a live album, Copenhagan, appeared in 1997. Krukowski and Yang briefly were in a new band, Pierre Etoile, and have worked as a duo (as Damon and Naomi) and also as a backing unit for other musicians.
Galaxie 500 came and went with barely a soul noticing; it wasn't until the late-90's Rykodisc re-releases came out that they've been gradually given their due for their trilogy of barren urban soundscapes. They'll never be remembered as one of the greatest indie bands, although at their best, they really were pretty great. Still, those three albums capture an era and a sensibility when indie rock was undergoing profound changes in the late 80's; the points from which they came, and the directions to which they pointed weren't a natural fit; it took Galaxie 500 to bridge the gap.
Weekly Artist Overview appears on Mondays.
Listen to Galaxie 500: Summertime (1990)