Damon and Naomi: Within These Walls

On Within These Walls Damon & Naomi look inward and outward, forward and back.

Damon and Naomi

Within These Walls

Label: 20-20-20
US Release Date: 2007-09-25
UK Release Date: 2007-09-24

The phrase "headphones album" is overused by critics, almost always to describe music that is loaded with sounds. The inference is that you need headphones to hear all of the instruments, to truly "get" what is going on. Another kind of headphones album, though less often described as such, is an album that rewards patience. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, Damon & Naomi, make those kinds of albums: slow and un-showy, rarely giving the listener simple, quickly grasped pleasures. Or at least these days they increasingly do. Their debut album, 1992’s More Sad Hits, contained more concise, spare versions of their previous band Galaxie 500’s swooning, hazy pop. Since then, Damon & Naomi’s music has continually broadened in sound and scope. The songs have stretched out, and so has their perspective. The duo’s 2000 collaboration with the Japanese group Ghost (With Ghost) cemented on record an international outlook already demonstrated by the duo’s world tours. World-traveling has made its mark on their music. On their own label 20/20/20 they have began a series of compilations of music from abroad that they’ve discovered while traveling (International Sad Hits). Their 2005 album The Earth Is Blue looked towards Brazil and Japan, adding to a lush, sensuous version of their melancholy songwriting

As its title suggests, their sixth studio album Within These Walls looks not abroad but inward. Damon & Naomi themselves have described it as “ballads in a lonely mood”. Significantly, though, they continue to follow the path towards musical expansion and collaboration. They layer these sad ballads with elegant arrangements of horns and strings, often arranged by Bhob Rainey of nmperign. And they bring back Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara. His presence is almost a given nowadays with a Damon & Naomi release, after many live and studio collaborations. But it’s no less remarkable. In this album’s climate of patient intensity, his electric guitar cuts through the air in a striking, poetic way. The most explicit example is “Stars Never Fade”. The song has at first a calming mood, with Yang singing with stars in her eyes: “The world through your eyes looks so elegant.” But soon enough she begins to question how true this really can be, whether happiness is also just a game, a ruse, “trick photography”. And then Kurihara’s guitar rips into the song and lifts it upwards in a beautifully angry way. He does similar, if less dramatic, service to the rest of the album. Similar to how some film critics try to imagine an actor as the true auteur behind a body of film work, it’s easy to imagine someone hearing this as a Kurihara album. His guitar is the thread that runs through the entire affair, drawing out the emotions. It’s the Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the tragic human affairs acted out by the songs’ characters.

In a way the album is marked by restraint. The general tone is gentle and calm, but there’s always a sense that something much darker is not far away. In fact the lyrics put the darkness much closer; most of the songs’ narrators feel like bleak, total darkness is upon them. But musically the duo never gives in to emulating the absolute dark. Instead the album seems a continual balancing act between the heavy and the light, between deeply sad sounds and more hopeful ones. The album’s first song, “Lilac Land”, has a moment which musically exemplifies the restraint Damon & Naomi display in their approach. The song begins with Yang singing of inescapable heartbreak. At about the two-and-a-half-minute mark, there’s a moment of tense silence, where you’re sure everything is about to explode. But the music doesn’t explode, it just proceeds, all the more tense for it.

This aura of restraint is one reason Kurihara’s electric guitar makes such an impression, by continually poking a knife blade out from the shadows. Yang’s voice is especially placid and pretty throughout the album, as she and Krukowski each sing about heartbreak, loneliness, and the realization that the truth is cold and ugly. Their songs’ protagonists often seem to just barely be holding their heads above the waves, just staying afloat. In the title track, Yang sings of the temptation of saying goodbye once and for all to this “world too unkind”, and the wish for a deus ex machina, or at least a lover who cares: “when I hold my breath beneath the wave…come save me”.

For an album that musically emulates a moment of stillness preceding potential utter devastation, it manages a surprising amount of diversity. The strings, horns, and Kurihara’s guitar are part of this, as their appearances are carefully arranged to maximize the musical and emotional effect. But Within These Walls also includes enough musical passages that feel absolutely hopeful. The brighter passages lean against the bleakest ones, creating a balance that makes the album stronger. The album’s second song, “The Well”, is probably the loveliest Damon & Naomi song yet. It’s open and airy, with a striking melody that buoys the sense of hope inherent in the lyrics. Krukowski sings high backing vocals that sweetly balance with Yang’s voice as she takes the album’s recurring water metaphor in an optimistic direction, singing, “wide-open water can set you free.” And of course Kurihara’s guitar plays a key role in this as well, gliding gracefully. The song shines even brighter because of its appearance between tragedies.

The same happens at the album’s end, as another moment of hope is paired with something bitter. “The Turnaround” is a long-distance love song with a sense of starting over: “brushes dipped in fresh white paint / the turnaround / the change of key”. The next song, “Cruel Queen”, slaps it in the face, though. A distinctively creepy, yet somehow moving, update of the traditional folk ballad “The Trees They Do Grow High” brings the album to a brutal end. Damon & Naomi’s version gives the song a fresh strangeness while retaining the feeling that it’s an old tale, and that human manipulation of hearts is an ancient game. It caps off the album with the impression that Within These Walls’s perspective stretches far beyond the walls of any one room, after all. Heartbreak is universal.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

In this exploration of the Hasidic Orthodox Jewish community in New York, it can be inferred that religion is likened to a spatial cave within a wider world of cultural beliefs, ideas and means of expression.

Menashe (2017) marks Alex Lipschultz's debut as a screenwriter. He shares co-writing credit with director Josh Z. Weinstein for whom the film marks his own narrative directorial feature debut. In as much as it is a film of firsts, Menashe is a reemergence of an historical Jewish language that has been absent from the modern cinematic art form for many decades. For Lipschultz it's certainly the continuation of his storytelling journey, building on his producing credits that include feature films Computer Chess (2013) and Lovesong (2016), as well as Richard Linklater's television series Up to Speed (2012).

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.