By Peter Margasak
The box set used to be a solemn bestowment, confirmation of a band’s status as legend–or at least an acknowledgment of its influence on other legends. One scan of music store shelves, crammed with box sets by everyone from Kansas to Blowfly, suggests that the criteria for this honor have gotten a bit lax. In the liner notes to the recently issued four-CD set from soft-footed psychedelic minimalists Galaxie 500, bassist Naomi Yang recalls a conversation the band once had with its producer, Kramer, about his “pseudo-legendary” combo Bongwater. Yang says she and her band mates jokingly wished they too could be pseudo-legendary; now their wish has come true.
Between its formation in 1987 and its demise in 1991 the Boston trio made three albums, all of which have been out of print for at least five years. Their unavailability has greatly enhanced the band’s reputation: the records can’t be had, so people will pay out the ass to obtain them. Despite this, a small army of more or less popular (if not legendary) indie-rock bands–Codeine, Low, Saturnine, Acetone, Seam–has managed to be influenced by Galaxie 500.
Of course when Galaxie 500 still existed, all anyone could talk about was its massive debt to the Velvet Underground. With Yang, who first picked up her instrument to join the band, and drummer Damon Krukowski, New Zealand native Dean Wareham attempted to build ecstatic guitar epiphanies out of a hypnotic swirl of relentless strumming, sleepy melodies, circular drumming, and languid basslines. Producer Kramer lent a heavy hand, drenching their music with the murky reverb that rapidly came to define their sound. But as heard on the band’s debut album, Today, released on Boston’s Aurora label in 1988 and later reissued by Rough Trade, Galaxie 500 was a clunky, if charming, mess without the means to execute even Lou Reed’s simple formula.
With its other two albums, On Fire (1989) and This Is Our Music (1990), Galaxie’s musicianship improved slowly. Wareham’s knack for refracting the scrappy eloquence of Reed’s solos through a psychedelic prism became particularly impressive, but otherwise the band didn’t really develop very much. Wareham tried to be more expressive in his singing, which had the adverse effect of heightening the unpleasant piercing quality of his voice. On the final album there was a palpable effort at stretching out; Yang’s rendition of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow Is Falling” hinted at a move toward elegance and restraint, its slow-burn intensity revealing a thoughtful grace not previously heard, but Wareham bailed out before any substantial transformation could take root.
Wareham eventually resurfaced with a much sharper focus in Luna, a quartet with an infinitely superior rhythm section, but though Luna’s three albums display sophistication and pop savvy, they lack Galaxie’s inchoate appeal. Krukowski and Yang have made a pair of inconsequential pastel records as the duo Damon & Naomi and now serve passably as the rhythm section in the Boston-area guitar freak-out foursome Magic Hour.
If anything about Galaxie 500 warrants historical inspection, it’s the sound, not the songs. Bands that borrow from the Velvets were (and still are) a dime a dozen, but in a particularly noisy time in independent rock, Galaxie had the prescience to take hypnotic, shimmering structures as its trademark–years before they became wallpaper in the chill-out rooms at raves and de rigueur for the current rash of texture- and feeling-fueled rock bands. But a box set with a 48-page booklet (almost twice the size of the box-set booklet for Pere Ubu, a band that’s been blazing trails for more than 20 years) may be more than we need to get the point.
This set includes all three of Galaxie’s studio albums and an additional disc of b sides, an early single, compilation tracks, and some previously unreleased demos. (It also includes four music videos, but I never figured out how to watch the damn things on my CD-ROM.) There’s not much in the actual music that suggests the trio’s importance; in fact the most striking thing about the release is just how middling the music sounds now. Hindsight suggests it wasn’t so much what Galaxie 500 did that affected others, but what it didn’t do. In quietly breaking with the prevailing indie-rock sound of the day, the band unwittingly broke ground.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Galaxie 500 photo.