Review of Today/On Fire/This Is Our Music (Re-issues) Album by Galaxie 500

The name Galaxie 500 is considered to be synonymous with the 'slowcore' movement spearheaded by the likes of Low and Codeine these days, but take a steady trip back in time to 1988 and they represented something altogether different entirely. Then seen as something of an anomaly, too melancholic and quiet to fit in with the emerging slacker scenes where the likes of Dinosaur Jr, Pixies and Mudhoney were making considerable headway, and far too dark for the sprightly pop REM or Throwing Muses were conveying at that time. By fate rather than any conscious choice, they seemed more at home within the emerging shoegaze community, distinguishable brethren only by demeanour and a penchant for repetitive guitar loops rather than engineering dizzying levels of white noise from their instruments. But of course, that doesn't even tell half the story.

Galaxie 500 Today/On Fire/This Is Our Music (Re-issues) Album

Initially formed a year earlier by Harvard graduates Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, their semi-acoustic take on blues-tinged psychedelia set them apart from all of their peers and contemporaries of the day. Even their live shows - if you were fortunate enough to catch one, as their visits across the Atlantic were rare - were seismic affairs of orgasmic beauty. The only time I got to see them supporting the then upwardly mobile Sundays was one of those moments where for the half hour duration of their set, one could literally have heard a pin drop. Looking back now it seems odd that such a curiosity among music obsessives then have achieved cult status today, but listening back to their three studio albums it's easy to see why as they've more than stood the test of time.

Their debut long player, 'Today' released in 1988, was perhaps most recognisable for two things; firstly because its mid-point was punctuated by a perfunctory yet ambitious cover of Jonathan Richman's 'Don't Let Our Youth Go To Waste', its sprawling finale taking it near the seven-minute mark, and secondly the decision to employ Kramer, more renowned for his musical exploits as a member of experimental/noise combos such as B.A.L.L, Bongwater and the Butthole Surfers take refuge behind the mixing desk, something that would continue throughout their entire recording career. Although now little more than a stepping stone to what followed afterwards, the likes of early single 'Tugboat' and overt statement on the effects of heavy narcotics usage 'Temperature's Rising' give a subservient hint at where they'd be heading next, even if not quite just how influential the threesome would turn out to be. (8/10)

The real turning point came almost a year to the day later in the shape of their second album, 'On Fire'. Although similar in structure and use of melody, both Wareham's vocal styling and songwriting show a more mature side, perfectly illustrated in the record's exquisite opening three-and-a-half minutes, 'Blue Thunder', perhaps their best known song even to this day. Never have such simplistic arrangements sounded so effective, and at no point throughout 'On Fire' do Galaxie 500 lose their memento. 'When Will You Come Home' is simply mesmerising in its execution, 'Strange' quite prophetic as Wareham asks 'Why's everybody look so nasty?' as less than two years later it will all be over, while 'Decomposing Trees' is quite possibly one of the most haunting pieces of music ever committed to tape, tenor sax coda and all. Again, as with its predecessor, Galaxie 500's fine line in covers gets the treatment not once but twice, George Harrison's 'Isn't It A Pity' echoing some long lost West Coast artefact from the late 1960s while Joy Division/New Order's 'Ceremony' is nothing less than magnificent, a perfectly formed tribute to its late lamented writer that actually usurps the original in part. If Wareham, Krukowski and Yang had decided to go their separate ways after 'On Fire' no one could have faulted them, as its timeless quality is peerless, and would be a fitting epitaph for any artist. That they returned to the studio soon after to concoct a record equally as befitting such plaudits is testimony to their creative ingenuity at that moment in time. Nevertheless, 'On Fire' isn't seen as THE definitive 'slowcore' long player for nothing, and therefore twenty years after its release, still scores a near perfect.(9/10).

With relationships becoming increasingly strained - by this time Wareham had moved back to New York, the other two still residing in Boston, it was only a matter of time before Galaxie 500 would implode, but before the inevitable conclusion, they still managed to find time to add one more fitting chapter to their already impenetrable legacy. 'This Is Our Music' was possibly their most diverse collection of works to date, mostly forsaking the mellow introversion of yore for more uptempo passages such as lead single 'Fourth Of July', Wareham's spoken word asides capturing the mood of the time with the more acerbic sounds of a latter-day Sonic Youth in accompaniment. Indeed this was the type of album many had expected with Kramer at the controls, the obtuse 'Summertime' and dissonant 'Listen, The Snow Is Falling' - the latter another cover, this time of a Yoko Ono number and featuring a rare Naomi Yang vocal - both stretching Galaxie 500 to the limit and indicating already where their next projects would take them, either separately or as a unit. Its quite fitting in a way that 'This Is Our Music' ends where the story initially began, their updated sequel to early b-side 'King Of Spain' taking us full circle on a journey that was about to reach its natural end, Wareham quitting the band soon after the record's release.

Since their demise, the three members of the band have popped up in various guises and projects, Wareham in Luna and with wife Britta Phillips as Dean and Britta, while the other two continue to work together as Damon and Naomi up to the present day. However, despite coming close - the latter with the elegiac 'More Sad Hits' and 'Within These Walls', and the former's gorgeously sombre 'Back Numbers', its fair to say they've never quite hit the dizzy heights of 'This Is Our Music', and for that reason among many others it also merits an almost flawless.


Dom Gourlay

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