The collective of vocalist/guitarist Dean Wareham, drummer Damon Krukowski, and bassist Naomi Yang, which comprised the influential minimalist shoegaze band Galaxie 500 from 1986-1991, took a significant blow when Wareham left the group and joined up with ex-Feelies and Chills members to form Luna in 1992. At this point, already romantically involved and in the midst of starting a book publishing company together, Krukowski and Yang floundered a bit while they tried to make sense of their music careers. They ended up releasing a few leftover tracks under the name Pierre Etoile through Rough Trade before debuting as Damon & Naomi with More Sad Hits (1992), which according to the band was originally meant to be a reconciliatory farewell to the music industry. Instead, it turned out to be the beginning of a new, ongoing chapter for the duo.
Considering the different directions they went after parting ways, it’s easy to see where a rift might have emerged between the two split parties of Galaxie 500: while Wareham took a more structured and up-tempo path with Luna, Damon & Naomi opted instead to fully pursue Galaxie’s most muted and ethereal qualities, ending up with a sound initially less accessible, but perhaps ultimately more consistent with their former band. In fact, the difference between the two can be summed up by the divergent, albeit related, subgenres that each extracted and pursued from the amalgam that existed within Galaxie 500—Luna unabashedly embraced the dream-pop angle, while Damon & Naomi explored its slowcore flipside.
After More Sad Hits, the couple not only began serving as the rhythm section for the newly formed band Magic Hour, but were also convinced to sign to Sub Pop for the four albums represented in this collection. If anything, the first of these, The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi, showed that the group was in the process of finding their feet. Still working with the famed, madly prolific producer known as Kramer who had helmed all of Galaxie 500’s records, Damon & Naomi’s earliest work felt for the most part relatively plodding and muddled as they tried to hang onto old practices and alliances. It was the move away from the studio and their longtime producer and towards a more lo-fi, homespun aesthetic on their follow-up, Playback Singers, that ushered in their most fruitful era.
The tracklist on The Sub Pop Years doesn’t move in chronological order, instead favoring a scattered approach motivated by flow and pacing, so it’s difficult to gauge the gradual change that took place in their sound over the years. The collection might have even benefited from the former method, which would more clearly illustrate how much they gained from joining with the Japanese psychedelic band Ghost for their next release, the aptly titled Damon & Naomi with Ghost. Finally embracing live touring, and having more-or-less permanently adopted Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara into the group, Damon & Naomi now fully came into their own as an outfit.
Their final album for Sub Pop and the one with the largest offering on this collection, the live album Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian, found them playing a stellar show with Kurihara, revisiting and improving upon many of their old songs as well as performing the inspired new title track, a Tim Buckley cover. Interestingly, the album was not recorded in San Sebastian at all after a last-minute change of tour plans, but was instead recorded in a living room in Cambridge with crowd noise from other recorded shows dubbed in. A strange method to be sure, but it resulted in undoubtedly their finest album for Sub Pop, a high note on which they left to begin releasing equally stellar albums on their own 20/20/20 imprint.
The changes that took place over Damon & Naomi’s time at Sub Pop were subtle but momentous for the group, which is what allows the material to seamlessly fit together, though the more engaging moments, i.e. those with Ghost, tend to stick out. That’s not to say the tracks representing the earlier years are subpar—they are solid selections, particularly the bittersweet rumination of “How Long” and the dreamy spacerock of “In the Sun”—it’s just that on their later albums, with additional talented musicians filling out their basic acoustic guitar/bass/tambourine makeup, the beautiful melodies and wistful lyrics and voices are that much more well-balanced and magnificent.
Some of the characteristics ascribed to Galaxie 500 certainly remain intact under those circumstances too, as Kurihara’s guitar on “New York City” almost sounds lifted right off the Velvet Underground’s third, self-titled album, providing a liquidy, immaculate counterpoint to Naomi’s vocally blissed-out reflection on drifting away from the city while “the sun is always setting in my eyes”. Melodically, it doesn’t get much better than the expansive and jaw-dropping vocals that that the duo lay down together on “The Mirror Phase”, which soar on top of Naomi’s harmonium and Ghost’s impressionistic backing tones to create perhaps the finest moment here.
Though not quite as engaging as their full-length albums with Ghost—seriously, a match made in heaven—The Sub Pop Years is a fascinating document of the most formative years of Damon & Naomi’s rewarding partnership. For those interested in any of the above-mentioned bands or genres, this is a near-essential retrospective that will likely inspire further exploration of this duo’s ever-blossoming catalogue.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.