Galaxie 500

On Fire
This Is Our Music

Today (Aurora '87, Rough Trade '91) Rating: A-
Galaxie 500 is one of many “alternative” bands from the 1980s who are now seen as “legendary” or “seminal” despite being unjustly overlooked back in the day. The band’s increased profile over the years likely has much to do with the popularity of Galaxie 500 leader Dean Wareham’s subsequent band, Luna, but also because the band’s music has held up so remarkably well. Really, this music is timeless: hit on a slow, laconic groove that’s perfect for chilling out on a hot summer day, add melodic, shimmery guitars drenched in a gauzy reverb, and top if off with languid just got out of bed vocals and you have an oversimplification of the Galaxie 500 sound. He may not be the most technically gifted guitar player around, but Wareham nevertheless has an instinctive ability to deliver intoxicating guitar-based melodies, whether soloing (which he does fairly frequently, particularly at the end of songs) or simply adding to the groove laid down by the rhythm section of bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski. Again, I wouldn’t want Naomi or Damon teaching my kids how to play their instruments, and there are times when I wish the duo would add a bit more energy to the proceedings, but the band’s overall chemistry, their impeccably tasty grooves, is what makes them special so you won’t hear me knocking them too much. OK, let me add one more quibble, one that you’ll likely hear throughout my reviews of both Galaxie 500 and Luna; Wareham isn’t the most original or diverse artist, he does what he does and he sticks to it for the most part. Fortunately, whether with Galaxie 500 or Luna, he does what he does very well, and Today was a consistently strong first set on which it’s hard to pick out individual song highlights. If forced to pick I suppose I'd go with "Flowers," "Temperature's Rising," and "Tugboat" as the album's standout tracks, but really this is one of those albums where you can just press play and enjoy the whole thing. To conclude this review, I’ll add the obligatory “this band is highly influenced by the third Velvet Underground album” disclaimer while also noting that indie producer Kramer produced this album and that they cover Jonathan Richman (“Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste”), who himself was also highly influenced by The Velvet Underground.

On Fire (Rough Trade ‘89) Rating: A
More of the same high quality stuff, but even better. Basically, this second installment sees the band further consolidating their strengths, as the album is a bit more varied, soulful, and psychedelic than Today. Although this is still basically a "mood album," sometimes the band even comes perilously close to rocking out, and Wareham's vocals are less warbly and more passionate on the whole. He even breaks out a cool falsetto from time to time, never more spectacularly than on "Blue Thunder," arguably the Galaxie 500 song which gets the album off to a great start. In addition to its fabulous falsettos, the song features gorgeously shimmering guitars and becomes a sing along epic before of course being topped off by a tasty guitar solo. Wareham's falsetto vocals also highlight the simple but effective "Tell Me," on "Snowstorm" Wareham merely moans atop more gauzy atmospherics, and Yang primarily sings the dreamy "Another Day." Elsewhere, louder riffs and impassioned vocals are notable attributes of the questioning "Strange," while "When Will You Come Home" again has more energy in the vocal department but unsurprisingly is more about its stellar guitar-based groove than anything else. Other tracks include "Decomposing Trees," a moody number featuring some cool tenor sax work from guest Ralph Carney, "Leave The Planet," a sparse yet trippy rocker reminiscent of early Flaming Lips, and the soaring "Plastic Bird," a personal favorite. Last but certainly not least (or even last if you have the cd version of the album) is the band's excellent cover version of George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity," which is tailor made for their laid-back style. Again, if you have the cd release of On Fire, this great album gets even better via three strong bonus tracks, including covers of Red Krayola's "Victory Garden" and Joy Division/New Order's "Ceremony" (my favorite New Order song), and their own "Cold Night."

This Is Our Music (Rough Trade '90) Rating: B+
More of the same high quality stuff, but not as good. It is better than some would have you believe though (for example, the infuriating Rob Sheffield gave the album a ridiculous 2 out of 10 in the dubious SPIN Alternative Record Guide), but This Is Our Music (named after an Ornette Coleman album) is a clear notch below the previous two albums. Why? The songs, mostly, as individual tracks don't stand out as much, plus the overall sound is a bit sleeker and less comfy on the whole, while several songs stay well past their expiration date. The album's clear high point is "Fourth Of July," which settles into a great groove, while "Melt Away" is similarly hooky but not nearly as exciting. Elsewhere, easily graspable hooks are much harder to find, but at least the band does attempt to expand their sound somewhat, adding a flute to "Way Up High," horns to "King Of Spain, Pt. 2" ("Pt. 1" was on Today), and orchestrations to "Spook" and "Here She Comes Now," while Yang adds another lead vocal on an elongated version of Yoko Ono's "Listen, The Snow Is Falling." Basically, although this was another enjoyable effort (special mention for the superb “Summertime,” probably the second best song here after “Fourth Of July”), some wear and tear started to show here, as for the first time the album's slowly swaying melodies (the band are dubbed "slowcore" for a reason; yeah, I agree that's a dumb label) sometimes seem to drag on rather than simply being exceedingly pleasant. So, given that, I can see why Dean Wareham decided to pull the plug on Galaxie 500 after this album (much to Naomi and Damon's shock and disappointment), as there's something to be said for getting out while the going is still good. As a postscript to the Galaxie 500 saga, I'll note that the band's albums were out of print for a while but you can get them now; given the band's consistent quality, you may want to simply splurge for 1996's Galaxie 500 box set, which includes the band's three proper albums, each with bonus cuts, plus a fourth disc titled Uncollected that contains worthwhile if largely inessential rarities. After Galaxie 500, Damon and Naomi continued as a duo while Wareham formed Luna.

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