PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

A Studied Aesthetic: 'Temperature's Rising: An Oral History of Galaxie 500'

"I was always drawn to the simple and the well proportioned rather than the flashy." Naomi Yang's aesthetic speaks for her band in this handsomely assembled presentation of words and depictions about their memorable music.

Temperature's Rising: An Oral History of Galaxie 500

Publisher: Yeti
Format: Paperback
Publication sate: 2013-05
Price: $19.95
Author: Mike McGonigal
Length: 192 pages

This collaboration expands an oral history from participants and observers, one of whom, bassist Naomi Yang, crafted the visual content enhancing this careful indie-rock band's image a quarter-century ago. That span surprises her, as she reflects in this compilation's final sentence: "I am grateful for not letting my youth go to waste and I am looking forward to adventures to come." Even before they formed what began as a shambling, untutored Galaxie 500, together from Fall 1987 to Spring 1991, they shared some youthful adventures together, unlike many a rock band's pedigree.

Yang and her partner, drummer Damon Krukowski, have known guitarist-singer Dean Wareham since they were teenagers at the same (unnamed here, but Dalton) Manhattan prep school in the late '70s. They earned degrees from Harvard, with Yang and Krukowski staying on as graduate students for a while while Wareham worked as a clerical temp. Meanwhile, they started a band in Boston. But it didn't sound like Mission of Burma or hardcore. As journalist Francis Dimenno observes: "Their album covers made a statement. Cool Restraint. Educated. Upper Class. Lots of Social Contacts."

As an intern for graphic designer Milton Glaser before she began her visual arts degree at Harvard, Yang possessed a confident air in her own promotional material. When the Italian font she hand-cut from a wedding invitation (which would grace many of Galaxie 500's productions) did not have two letters needed, she drew her own for the band's first cassette labels. She added such refinement seamlessly to the pre-digital mechanical and knife-trimmed process that she meticulously annotated as typographical directions for the band's debut LP Today (1988). These examples, added to the sounds the band labored to produce from raw promise, demonstrate the trio's concern for precision.

It's more elusive from McGonigal's verbal transcriptions what Galaxie 500 sounded like for a curious reader coming to this collection (many appeared in a series for Pitchfork in 2010). Writer Martin Aston sums them up: "They played slow when everyone was fast. They were defiantly lo-fi before it became accepted, they preceded shoegazing, but never felt as posy as much of what followed. It was totally out of time, not in a scene, music that existed because they just felt like playing it, or were limited by how they played. Punk mentality. 'We're aspiring to primitivism,' Damon once told me."

Aston's claim that Galaxie 500 "never felt as posy" as those who came later may be debatable. For evidence, the stylized, rarified, or shimmering nature of many photographs by Yang and colleagues such as classmate Sergio Huidor or Shimmy Disc's Michael Macioce (at the World's Fair site in Queens) document well the band's determination to stand out from their leather-jacketed peers. Even in denim, Wareham tries to exude sophistication, while Krukowski's similarly rumpled fashion plays off of his knowing scowl. And as for Yang, her bold earrings and dress sense draw one's attention.

The band, as photos and their recollections illustrate how the three worked together--before they did not. Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins notes Galaxie 500's lack of a solo star: he liked Yang's "simple naive approach" on the bass, while Wareham's "Velvets-y delivery" by "smart lyrics", a dry vocal style, and nimble guitar filled the space left by Krukowski's "expressive" and often spare, jazz-tinged percussion washes and taps. (No questions are asked by McGonigal; he silently arranges the responses in brief chapters around chronological themes.)

The drummer explains how he heard the guitar at the top, his partner's bass in the middle of the soundstage on stage or in his mental mix, and himself at the bottom. Fitting this model, Krukowski felt it was "like joining the circus." Under Kramer's production, skillful singles led to an amazing first album, that album to another many judged even better, On Fire (1989) on Rough Trade, and acclaim.

For a while at gigs, on the road, or in rehearsal, the band got along. Predictably, Wareham laments (briefly here, but see for far more the first hundred pages of his 2008 memoir Black Postcards) that the pressure of a pair teamed off against himself made for poor negotiations as a purported trio. As the band's power struggles grew, they -- all in their mid-20s -- contended against outside pressures. Courted by Rough Trade, Yang recoiled. What the businessmen presented in the guise of friendship, she suspected as manipulation. Producing product, for the three committed to crafting quality, clashed with Galaxie 500's ethic.

Their rapid from-underground-to-college-radio success kept some misgivings internally shrouded and externally sidestepped. Kramer remembers: "The band was standing on top of a mountain looking down. The first record didn't seem like it got any bad reviews anywhere." Their second met with even better reception, but their third, This Is Our Music (1990), came with the record label and mismanagement problems (not helped by Kramer's addiction) that left Galaxie 500 straitened. Yang includes a photo of the "money envelope" with penciled scrawls of what cash came in from promoters and what went out for cabfare. Even at the height of their career, the lessons learned on such trials as their US 1990 tour about to the realities of playing a distant city one week and then rushing back to the corporate temp job, as Wareham reflects, sobered them.

McGonigal's determination to match Yang's spare commentary on her archive of artifacts with unadorned transcripts may please fans, but for those less informed, this may not meet a newcomer's needs. The verbal editor provides neither an index nor introduction. True, a discography could be cobbled by a careful reader from Yang's inclusions. Most new fans will prefer a music guide for a standard overview of the band's influences, eclectic covers, lyrical moods, and production emphases. Kramer in an aside laments not capturing Galaxie 500 live when they could play as loud as Sonic Youth; the band's dynamic range on stage and on record, and (within a short career) their quickly improved dexterity both merit more mention than either the trio or their colleagues here provide.

"I was always drawn to the simple and the well proportioned rather than the flashy." Yang's aesthetic speaks for her band. They all squelch any reunion rumors. "We made three albums together, and those records are our children; even though we're divorced we still need to talk about the children occasionally." Wareham's tone captures the steady (or a few wobbly) judgments Galaxie 500 made, as musicians and as creators, to leave the best they could for discerning audiences then, and, enriched by Yang's contributions on their behalf, now in this handsomely assembled presentation of words and depictions about memorable music.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.