[18 May 2011]
After Galaxie 500, guitarist Dean Wareham led Luna towards increasingly lower volume, channeling the Velvet Underground’s tension into lounge-tinged and club-inflected indie-rock. Similarly, drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Yang have taken, the past 20 years, a direction into pastoral, nostalgic, literate tunes. On this, their seventh record together, they carry the softer sound of Galaxie 500’s heirs that has dominated their interpretations.
Joined as on their recordings the past decade by Ghost’s guitarist Michio Kurihara, the trio construct a mature, dignified set of songs. Yang’s composed vocals always prove welcome, and she conveys yearning by her delicacy. Her husband Krukowski is more straightforward than was his bandmate Wareham in preferring a less quirky vocal style, but his delivery calmly supports these songs confidently, if often unassumingly. The duo has opted over their career to seek a proper, upright stance that expresses their work ethic, intelligence, and commitment.
The new album False Beats and True Hearts, on their own 20/20/20 label, follows their re-releases of Galaxie 500’s three studio albums (with concert tracks, sessions and rarities generously added), their own retrospective of their earlier Sub Pop solo efforts on CD, and live DVDs from both their bands. “Walking Backwards” may reflect this archival endeavor. As the liveliest song, with its aggressive guitar, it leads the listener to expect a more upbeat set than the previous CD, Within These Walls, which neared most of all towards urban chamber music, a jazz-tinged influence. I found that a pleasant but less engaging record; it tended towards inner moods rather than extroverted tunes.
Yet this music’s meant for composure. A slight shift back to mid-period Damon and Naomi marks this year’s album. No false beats, however. Yang’s piano complements these songs, arranged as if on waves that ebb and flow. Krukowski’s drumming was often overshadowed by Wareham’s guitar in Galaxie 500, but his masterful, understated backing provides a solid foundation for “How Do I Say Goodbye”, “Shadow Boxing”, and the appropriately titled “Ophelia”, mirroring a floating world.
“Nettles and Ivy” brings a pricklier sensation, if brief, as it resists its movement slightly, reminiscent of jazz not in its instrumentation so much as its suspension of progress for a beat or two. Kurihara’s guitar sets itself in fluid strums and expressive passages over swaying melodies, punctuated by Yang’s use of silence to emphasize her spare bass playing in “What She Brings”. “Embers” expresses the band’s contemplative preferences, but it benefits from the shreds of guitar crackling under the glow of piano and drums.
“And You Are There” allows Yang’s bass to move about as she sings with assurance. The guitar and drums construct a deceptively spare track that represents the ambiance of these musicians, reminding one of poetry, shorelines and memory. “Helsinki” closes this short selection of songs with a touch of the psychedelic folk which deepened their initial solo work, and the guitar’s regressive patterns underlie a handsome conclusion to a solid album. While I prefer their earlier songs which followed this pattern, nothing on this latest album can be faulted.
As with Wareham now with his own duo Dean and Britta, or with Luna’s later period, his former rhythm section will not shake the walls as did Galaxie 500, at least in concert despite their softcore reputation. Damon and Naomi, true hearts by their devotion to their craft, appear, long after their former partner Wareham suddenly left their first band, to have chosen a wise route. (The liner notes left by the duo in the Rykodisc four-disd box set of their former band remain the saddest I have ever read.)
Songcraft nourishes their efforts, which sink in, compacted as earthier, evocative tunes. These are wind-attenuated tendrils to their more barbed roots. For college rock of the ‘80s, bands and fans reach the half-century mark. Audiences inherit a thoughtful, introspective set of sounds and lyrics. Damon and Naomi, assisted by Michio Kurihara (with three supporting musicians), have elegantly elaborated the possibilities afforded them after they were forced to survive as suddenly solo artists.
Yesterday, I heard Here Before, the Feelies’ newest album, appearing after 20 years of a parallel exit (right around the same time) from the acclaim of American indie rock. Those raised on tenser, edgier sonics gravitate as they ease into a steadier, balanced, stance. Middle age rewards both bands. (Tellingly, drummer Stan Demeski played for Luna on its earlier, peppier records.) As with their fellow admirers of layered guitar rock on complex, if self-effacing, patterns, Damon and Naomi represent the evolution of those who grew up with punk and came of age with post-punk, while listening to the eclectic sounds of the late ‘60s. All of this, fermenting and distilled, rewards us on records such as these two this new spring.