Saturday, May 12, 2012

Galaxie 500: On Fire (1989)

(Rough Trade)


Galaxie 500 didn't capture the sound of a traverse down a busy downtown street at 1 in the morning -- they were going a few hours later, after everyone else has gone home and the first peeks up of the Sunday morning sunrays are springing up and you can't imagine what the fuck you're still doing here with your head in the hands on the sidewalk. But of course, a more beautiful version of all that, the keening sing-song lullaby of "Tell Me" ringing out like some objectively beautiful glimpse at your plight that, in such a state, you can't possibly see yourself.

On Fire captures the trio -- Dean Wareham, Naomi Yang, Damon Krukowski -- at midpoint, after the constant contention that'd finally tear them apart had already taken hold. Acknowledged as their masterpiece, as a fan I've always found it the sole record of theirs that I start to lose a little patience with toward the end, with both "Leave the Planet" and "Plastic Bird" tending to flutter away unnoticed. Yet it's still a wonderful record; having established a distinctive reverb-drenched, dramatic one-chord sound with Today, the band digs its heels in here, crafting a series of powerful dirges that shed the faint folky Byrdisms in favor of a more insular yet sound, slower and sadder and more explicitly predicting shoegaze. "Snowstorm," for instance, casts a metronome over a nearly inconsolable sense of yearning, despite its whooshing cymbals, the slicing in of a powerful drum sound, and the endless wah-wah solo. Wareham whines and drawls more, freer to explore his impulses on "Strange" and "When Will You Come Home" here, and the slight propulsion of the debut is nearly absent in favor of essentially pure atmospherics.

A difficult record, certainly, and one that stands firmly in place and refuses to move, but one that also periodically uncovers something of breathtaking beauty that can allow a knockout that seems to belie all influence and inflection. It's easy enough to intellectualize them as Harvard-education artsies with an interest in the "Hoboken sound" (they frequently worked with Dave Rick, formerly of Yo La Tengo) but then you hear that Naomi Yang vocal on "Another Day" with its twisting, persuasive melody and build to a tantalizingly brief duet with Wareham that bursts forth like a full color slow-motion dream -- or, better yet, the requisite cover, sending a standard George Harrison number ("Isn't It a Pity") off into agonized airspace, limited vocals and "cheap organ" and all. For all the simplicity of their sound and arrangement, for pure moping pleasure it's hard to beat them.

The experimentation, the walking-on-air steps toward pop immortality, would come on the third and final record, which I'm convinced is going to receive its critical due any year now. In the meantime, it's previewed by the splendidly incongruous tenor sax on "Decomposing Trees," a perfect complement to the song's cacophonous downbeat slide. And "Blue Thunder," the opening track, is itself a tough act to follow, building on the Today-styled mumbling melody as a figure on the floor looking up, the falsetto leaps and repetition of the evocative "I'll drive so far away" packing a lot of grandness in just 3:45. That cut and "Tell Me" alone define this band and their capacity for gentle, lyrical longing; if their sound carried its limits, good on them for making their point and departing, however acrimoniously, with the knowledge that they were capable of music this gorgeous and vivid.

Today (1988)

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