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Damon & Naomi - The Sub Pop Years

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Artist: Damon & Naomi

Album: The Sub Pop Years

Label: 20|20|20

Review date: Sep. 24, 2009

For anyone chasing the tale of the exploding Galaxie 500 juggernaut, rhythm section Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were the unpredictable hermeticists to lead singer and guitarist Dean Wareham’s proforma career moves. 1992’s More Sad Hits, planned as “a farewell,” as the duo state in their liner notes, is one of the most heartbreakingly honest documents of interpersonal betrayal and confusion ever released, wrapped up in one of Kramer’s gauziest productions. The musical lexicon wasn’t too far removed from Galaxie 500’s chilblain pop, but there were already hints that Damon and Naomi were ready to spread their wings – the wild coda of “This Car Climbed Mount Washington,” the Robert Wyatt references dotted throughout.

1995’s The Wondrous World of Damon and Naomi was a special moment for some of us. Turning to folk music and agrarian American traditional music, it set the course for three subsequent albums, Playback Singers, Damon and Naomi with Ghost (recorded with the Japanese psych outfit), and Live in San Sebastian, the not-actually-live album with Ghost’s guitarist Michio Kurihara. (Wondrous World also inspired one of the finest record reviews I’ve ever read, by Kevin Moist in his Deep Water ‘zine, where he correctly gauged both the deeply personal and benignly universal motifs at the heart of the record.) The Sub Pop Years pulls together a grab-bag of songs from those four albums and acts as a great primer for a period where Damon and Naomi were feeling their way into a new song, a new way of being – singers instead of players, front-people instead of backline, wordsmiths alongside musicians.

The selections are great, though they rely more on Damon and Naomi’s melancholy – the lovely “Tour of the World” is one of the shining exceptions, where Kramer’s tapes suddenly drop the duo in front of a festival audience and they sing out like an American Incredible String Band. But their sad hits allow them to make the most of the bittersweet tang of their voices, and when embellished by the players from Ghost, songs like “The Navigator” or “Turn of the Century” positively ripple with sadness. Like many great solo artists or duos, Damon and Naomi often imagine the band they need to support their songs best, and then go about creating that band (either with collaborators, or via their own imaginations), and many of the songs on The Sub Pop Years feature great examples of ensemble playing. It’s telling that even their only ‘truly duo’ album, Playback Singers, features some glorious performances, like the drowsy, blissed-out arbor of “Eye of the Storm,” that have all the power of a simpatico group setting.

Because the chronology’s deliberately muddled, you don’t necessarily get to directly hear the ‘blossoming’ of Damon and Naomi, the socialisation of what was once an intensely private endeavour. Instead, The Sub Pop Years tells a different, and probably more gripping, story – of artists who have continually searched for epiphany at the heart of a song, who’ve looked for the eternal in the gentle strum of the guitar, the raspy drone of the harmonium, and the twin angel sighs of Naomi’s drifting, melodic bass lines, and Damon and Naomi’s voices.

But you’re also reminded of how quietly pioneering Damon and Naomi were, riffing on acid folk from the 1970s when everyone was still surfing in the grunge fallout zone, and connecting with Japanese psych rock years before Acid Mothers Temple became indie household names. The Sub Pop Years tells the story of that development – seven years of feet-finding and roots-gathering. The next step, as you can hear on 2005’s The Earth Is Blue and 2008’s Within These Walls, is the self-assured realisation of the dream logic at the heart of the Damon and Naomi song. But if you haven’t yet dipped your fingers in their first phase, The Sub Pop Years will prove positively revelatory. These are songs of everyday profundity and victory over adversity.

By Jon Dale

Other Reviews of Damon & Naomi

False Beats and True Hearts

Damon & Naomi With Ghost

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View all articles by Jon Dale

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