Friday, July 29, 2011
Galaxie 500: Today (1988)
(Aurora [orig] / Rough Trade [reissue])
I need a Dean Wareham moment -- an escape to just this sound and these emotions. I don't refer to any systematic effort of trancelike relaxation so much as just a temporary suspension of all the things that constitute groundedness. You have fifty appointments next week? Right now you don't! Right now, guitars! No trappings whatsoever, just to float off into fuzzed-out feedback and feel suspended in time. Cut the lights off, stare straight upward, and put Today on the headphones. No band, not even My Bloody Valentine or the Jesus and Mary Chain, has ever crafted music as purely and romantically about the electric guitar as Wareham and his first of two brilliant outfits, Galaxie 500.
A common criticism in trad circles in the '80s -- a time, incidentally, to which this music seems to hold no ties whatsoever, their dream-pop not even exhibiting as much debt to its period as most of the actual shoegazers -- was that G500 lacked "songs." There is some truth in this; this band is about a sound and a mood as much as it's about hooks and songcraft, and if anything Galaxie 500's work is least inspired when they show the most adherence to such conventions (as on this record's odd drug song "Temperature's Rising"). But it's also a broad exaggeration to suggest that their work consisted solely of plodding guitar and Wareham's lilting, impossibly fragile vocals. That one could listen to "Parking Lot," with its thudding drums and gorgeous reverb-drenched Phil Spector wall of sound that lovingly obscures its pure Jack Nitzsche melodic beauty, without marveling even a little bit, would seem to me the mark of an overly catholic rock or pop purist. Or just a Luna fan.
Won't deny that to discover Galaxie 500 after Wareham's other band, Luna, is a bit of a rude shock. Luna is leagues beyond Galaxie for pop appeal, their work has a friendliness and directness lacking here, but it also shirks G500's crucial, deeply affecting, almost supernatural dreaminess altogether. You will fall in love with Luna's records but you'll never get lost like you will in the three Galaxie 500 LPs. Folks tend to name On Fire, the sophomore record, as the masterpiece; I personally disagree strongly, for I love that album but consider This Is Our Music a work of out-and-out mastery that has still yet to receive its due. So what of debut Today? It's here that the trio's (rounded out by bassist Naomi Yang and phenomenal drummer Damon Krukowski) ideas and music are at their purest, indeed their vaguest. The modern novice will be reminded less of shoegaze than of a band that was already established by this point but wouldn't operate this type of noise until some years later, Yo La Tengo. Ira Kaplan seems to clearly owe a debt to Wareham's guitar histrionics -- so why does YLT gain (well-deserved) accolades from many of the circles that dismissed Galaxie 500?
It probably has to do with levity, of which G500 has none -- this music is deadly serious, even druggy at times, which is precisely what allows it to revel so much in a pure, unfettered sonic beauty. Take album closer "Tugboat," which in certain hands could be a delicate but assured rock potboiler -- its melody and lyrical ideas are sophisticated enough to carry a much more pronounced and direct performance. Ira Kaplan once famously told Dinosaur Jr. at a Maxwell's gig prior to notoriety that their expertly crafted pop songs would be clearer if they'd turn down a bit. Wonder what Kaplan thinks of "Tugboat," which Galaxie 500 spends corrupting a pure and lovely riff and melody with muddiness, pronounced fragility, unaffected consistency and aloofness of spirit. Wareham wants the songs to sing him, and he completely lets them; the jokes and sweetness get sacrificed for an utter sincerity that can be nearly embarrassing ("Pictures" comes down on the right side, but certainly teeters on the edge) -- something Kaplan and company have only, with this distantly provocative guitar sound, attempted once, on their glorious marriage song "My Heart's Reflection." However less personal Wareham's work may seem, the mood of that astounding piece covers the entirety of this record.
Galaxie 500 probably also turned a few folks off with their flair for drama, which calls back to over-the-top Shadow Morton records (in a more oblique variation) and forecasts the mountains of teary-eyed sincerity in the indie neo-folk movement of the '00s. Quiet down "Oblivious" a bit and it's a Sufjan Stevens song; organize it into palpable hook-chorus moments and it's Arcade Fire. But it's to the band's eternal credit that they copped to no temptation except their own addiction to a sound. Wareham seemed to dig the idea of allowing the songs to all operate from a similar framework, so at first glance the record -- and the band's entire catalog, indeed -- seems to show little variance. But Chuck Berry's four or five biggest hits all sound pretty similar at first blush, too.
Any such ideas of dismissal lose relevance on second or third listen, and even the first time around, two cuts are undeniable. Opening track "Flowers" introduces the traditional Galaxie 500 sound, and it is so initially striking as to leave a permanent mark -- sounding so much like hundreds of things that have come since but nothing like any rock record that preceded it. Wareham is at his hyper-sad best here, too, keying himself perfectly to the buzzing majesty of the guitars with total emotional subservience. But better still is the Jonathan Richman cover "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste," the kind of rare indie rock benchmark moment that makes "epic" an actually helpful term. The urgency of the drum sound is jarring, but gets the blood pumping instantly -- the band finds the anthemic power buried in Richman's song and runs with it, brilliantly. They would prove to be one of rock's all-time greatest cover bands (their readings of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," Yoko Ono's "Listen, the Snow Is Falling," and especially the Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" are definitive), so it's a pity they didn't record more. "Waste" feels magic, like the stories your alt-rocker parents tell about hearing Sonic Youth or Nirvana the first time. Only, as the gentlemen and lady later said, as the great Ornette Coleman said before them, this is our music.
Today has the feel of myth; even the cover shows the wispy pull of the unfamiliar, like an old Foxfire book, which is surely intentional. It's eclipsed by the two subsequent Galaxie 500 albums (though I would actually feel dubious about ranking it over On Fire, which doesn't mean quite as much to me), and in my opinion by several of Luna's, but that doesn't stop it from feeling like a minor classic -- perversely, an album that is simultaneously naked in its self-absorption and impressively stylish. They may sound dead-eyed and resigned, but youth and hunger lurk underneah. If not at the obvious moments outlined above, it's clearest two minutes into "It's Getting Late," when the three of them all lose themselves in a pressing, impassioned, tremendously slow and loud instrumental break that seems just shy of breaking out in joy at its perfection. For touchy-feely electric folkies, that's pretty badass.
It's midsummer here now, the perfect time to take this onto the earbuds on the beach at night and spend some time looking at stars and being totally adolescent and uncool and sincere. Some things never stop feeling right, you know. Waves crashing over "Tugboat," yeah. That's one of 'em.