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Galaxie 500 - Today / On Fire / This Is Our Music

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Artist: Galaxie 500

Album: Today / On Fire / This Is Our Music

Label: 20|20|20

Review date: Jul. 28, 2010

In 2010, calling some band “youthful” likely foretells either a kowtow to its preternatural sophistication or a high-five to its feckless fun-loving. Both relentless innovation or focused partying implies some high level of energy. Kids! Consequently, just looking at the titles of Galaxie 500’s newly reissued-with-bonuses full-lengths — Today, On Fire, and This Is Our Music — gives one pause. There’s a disconnect between these records’ slow, sprawling consistency and the band’s explicitly stated interest in seizing the now; their signature song, after all, was a near-seven-minute cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste.” In an attempt to describe their sound, a generation of reviewers has probably scrambled to the thesaurus entry for “dreamy,” but possibly never to “urgency.” They just don’t sound young.

Funnily, the opening lines of their first single, “Tugboat,” are every bit as petulant as the punk songs Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang listened to in high school: “I don’t wanna stay at your party / I don’t wanna talk with your friends / I don’t wanna vote for your president.” Wareham repeats the line “There’s a place I’d like to be” over and over as the song’s chorus. It adds up to strange combination of attitude, innocence and insistence.

Galaxie 500’s songs all mostly sound the same, but it’s a counterintuitive sound. And yes, it’s sound dreamy. Martin Kramer’s production gives a sense at once of space and intimate, a warmth reminiscent of Wareham heroes Spacemen 3. That said, a listener can never drift away, because Wareham’s reedy voice and weird falsetto pull her back to earth. Krukowski’s drums serve as a backing instrument as much as a rhythmic anchor, his off-kilter cymbal hits constantly surprising in quiet moments. Yang’s bass parts hold more interest and surprise than Wareham’s rudimentary strum — until he plunges into long, remarkable solos, which tend to be as memorable as they are technically simple to play.

Performance, here, matters infinitely more than songwriting. Starting with very little musical experience or skill, they figured out what they wanted and how to do it, and for a very short period of time, they did it over and over. As a result, they’re one of few indie-rock bands to master cover songs; their slow-burning version of “Ceremony,” packaged here with On Fire, is classic. But their persistence in doing things their way extends farther than playing other people’s songs in the same style as they played their own.

Every song on On Fire, their best album, starts in exactly the same way, mostly even on the same chord, and all the songs follow the same arc, building dynamically, moving towards the upper limits of Wareham’s guitar neck and vocal range. A sax pipes up a couple times, Yang backing vocals emerge occasionally from the mix, but the more it goes on, the record just sounds more and more insistently like itself. No vocal hooks stick in one’s mind — Wareham’s lyrics don’t offer any easy access point. Though there are a few near-catchy riffs one might latch onto, a listener has to accept the totality of what-Galaxie-500-is-up-to in order to appreciate the record. Though hardly combative music, it makes an arrogant, brash demand. This, as they say, is their music.

Galaxie 500 split acrimoniously after their brief career from about 1986 to 1991. Krukowski and Yang have made some lovely records over a long career as Damon & Naomi, and Wareham has had success in various bands, but neither party has done anything that’s burned quite as brightly as Galaxie 500. According to Pitchfork’s recent Galaxie 500 oral history, the two factions still really dislike each other and have no intention to reunite. Immature? It seems fitting.

By Talya Cooper

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