Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 15, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Most pop musicologists consider Galaxie 500 the late-'80s branch of the Velvet Underground family tree, as does the now-defunct band's latest press release. The theory is only partly right. The Boston/NY-trio, with their allegiance to three chords and you're out, verse-verse-verse song structure and talk-sing vocal stylings is certainly heir to the musical spirit of VU, and Rykodisc's handsomely packaged enhanced-CD box set bears this fact out with hours of aural (and video) proof. But to characterize the band, which spawned Damon and Naomi and the ever-improving Luna, as a footnote -- even a pioneering footnote -- in minimalist rock is to overlook the uniqueness and impact of the group's vision. Fortunately, the three out-of-print LPs and fourth rarities disc that comprise the box set make this point with force.

Remixed from masters by the band's original producer, Kramer, the set begins with the group's 1988 debut album, "Today," which was originally released on Aurora Records. The simple guitar/voice interplay on the record -- perhaps best exemplified by "Tugboat," first put out as a 7-inch on blue vinyl -- suggest a band with equal parts taste and timidity. Other gems include a cover of Jonathan Richman's "Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste" and a lumbering bonus track, "King of Spain." Though at times the record suffers from the kind of sloppiness expected from a band in its formative stages, it's clear that Galaxie 500 were already committed to their signature spare sound, as if determined to march to their own taut snare through an era dominated by hair bands, Madonna and the slide into grunge.

The next two albums, 1989's "On Fire" and 1990's "This is Our Music," find Galaxie developing more melodic intricacies as they play slightly longer songs and cover other artists like George Harrison, Yoko Ono and, in bonus tracks, the Velvet Underground and Joy Division. The former LP boasts the exceptional five-minute drone "Snowstorm," the latter, "Fourth of July," two of many songs that illustrate what an exceptional band Galaxie had become -- and what they could have become, given more time. The fourth disc, "Uncollected Galaxie 500," showcases the band's more experimental side and features alternate takes, covers (two from the Beatles) and unreleased originals. Because Galaxie rarely altered its lineup or arrangements, two tracks from "Uncollected" are particularly noteworthy: a version of "Blue Thunder" from the album "On Fire," which features saxophone, and a cut called "The Other Side," with bassist Naomi Yang on lead vocals.

Scattered throughout the set are indications that while Galaxie was greater than the sum of its parts, Wareham was indeed the band's visionary. Yang's bass and Damon Krukowski's percussion are solid, but the best songs are built around Wareham's guitar lines, which seem to be drawn from the crossroads of bombastic '70s guitar rock and the understated flourishes popularized by George Harrison and later adopted by the likes of Television's Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell collaborator Robert Quine. The fact that Wareham plays some of Galaxie's material in expanded form with Luna (compare the solos in "Blue Thunder" and Lunapark's "Anesthesia," for example) is testament to the staying power of his melodies.

The great underdog subtext to the story of
this box set is that Krukowski bought
Galaxie's contracts back at an auction after
the American branch of Galaxie's label,
Rough Trade, went bankrupt. It was 1991,
the age of Seattle, and he was the highest
bidder. The price paid is not mentioned in
the beautiful book that accompanies the
discs (designed, like all the band's albums
and EPs, by Yang), but it's nice  and not
especially illogical  to imagine the band
walked away with a steal. It's a fitting
denouement for a band whose last record
was entitled "This is Our Music." Now,
thankfully, it's our music too.

By Joe Rosenthal

Joe Rosenthal is an associate music editor for Prodigy Music Services. His writing has appeared in Hotwired and Rolling Stone Online.

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