Damon and Naomi are feeling sad. Or rather, as the pretension of their third album, "Playback Swingers" suggests, their woeful hearts are suffused with a tempest-toss'd ennui. The acoustic duo doesn't meet a simple concept that they don't want to dress up in over-earnest bombast. Back in the late '80s, that was actually part of their charm, when Damon (Krukowski) and Naomi (Yang) were toiling as the rhythm section of Galaxie 500. Along with front man Dean Wareham, the Harvard-educated trio wrote pretty, sleepy-eyed pop songs that beautifully combined graceful melodies with high-brow lyricism about love and failure. When they broke up in 1990, they were cult heroes and bound for box-set glory; Wareham found a slinkier, funnier, more Velvets-y approach with his band Luna, while Krukowski and Yang began their slow descent into somber acoustic mush. "It's the turn of the century," Krukowski sings at the very beginning of "Playback Swingers," "which way you going to go?" Straight to bed for a good, long mope, the album's nine weary, lazy songs suggest.
Misery has always been part of the duo's artifice, but on their first album, 1993's "More Sad Hits," they approached it with a likable energy and an excellent command of harmony and songcraft, so that even a song about plane crashes and computer breakdowns came off as uplifting. But by 1995's "The Wonderful World of Damon and Naomi," they had crept into a tiring, dozing pop that "Playback Swingers" finishes off like anesthesia that works too well. The light sonic touches that shore up the songs' slow-strum acoustic backbone -- a glockenspiel here, a snare tapping there, some humming feedback and organ tones -- don't make the album's songs any more lively. And you get the impression that the duo actually likes it that way; they sing ditties like "In the Sun" and "I'm Yours" dispassionately, but their approach is so well-crafted it feels contrived. Except for a lovely cover of "Awake in a Muddle" by Japanese avant-popsters Ghost, most of the album lacks a pulse.
The dull pleasantness of the proceedings are so distancing that you might miss the lyrics, whose awfulness actually provides some ironic pleasures. The pair sings their words slurringly, so the lyric sheet comes in useful for those wishing to parse the meanings of their high school lit-mag pretensions. "Eye of the Storm" informs the listener that "to see things as they are is not to see the things that are not," while on "In the Sun" Yang wonders "how you see when something's on the verge of nothing I don't know." And "Kinetoscope," winner of the 1998 Rod McKuen Award for Unintentional Lyrical Hilarity, finds Krukowski crooning that "It's so hard being me," and reminds us that, alas, "no heart can tie what the fates undo." But the most telling line about their approach to music comes from the song "We're Not There," which sums up the usefulness of the entire album: "We play all the music on our own, and no one's there to hear us but rows and rows of boxes." Pity the boxes.