It's been nearly two decades since Galaxie 500 broke through with their languid, fuzzed-out dream pop, and rhythm section Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang still live and record in the Ivy Leagued shadow of their Cambridge, Mass., alma mater, Harvard University. Perpetual college rock? It's true their recordings as a duo have retained Galaxie 500's moody overtones, but the self-consciously wide-screen canvas is gone: instead of soaring chorus and spiral-jetty guitar wails, Damon and Naomi emphasize smart pop arrangements and subdued vocal harmonies. Their latest, Within These Walls (20/20/20), is one of the coziest albums of the year, not just for its rainy-day production but also for the impression that the pair is totally comfortable in their bittersweet pop. When I ask the two by e-mail why they are continually drawn to downbeat melodies, Yang replies that it's "the most melancholy records in our collection that get the most play in some ways I think that you need to really appreciate the melancholy, the fleeting, to appreciate happiness."
For a project summoning such constancy, Damon and Naomi barely got off the ground running as a duo. Surprised by Dean Wareham's stormy departure from Galaxie 500, the pair released a modest EP of songs under the name Pierre Etoile, but distribution problems waylaid the project. Burned twice in quick succession, Damon and Naomi rededicated their creative energies to Exact Change, a small press with an emphasis on reprinting experimental literature and writing by avant-garde composers and artists. Galaxie 500 producer Kramer hooked the duo for a one-off return to music, 1992's More Sad Hits (Shimmy Disc), and five studio albums later, they're still treading water in the afterglow.
Krukowski once remarked in an interview with the Wire that Galaxie 500 was drawn to imitate the Velvet Underground's eponymous third record and Big Star's Third (Rykodisc, 1978) for "the sound of a band after it's been a rock band." Damon and Naomi are, of course, this concept's incarnation: a band risen up from the rhythm section of a much-heralded breakthrough act, whose first full-length together was designed as a farewell.
All of their successive albums work within the narrow wall of this hushed grace, but the pair can hardly be accused of resting on Galaxie 500's laurels. Besides running Exact Change and backing up Kate Biggar and Wayne Rogers (currently of Major Stars) on their Magic Hour project, the duo has worked extensively with Japanese psych rockers Ghost, especially with virtuoso guitarist Michio Kurihara, who has added his tasteful accompaniment to their last several albums and tours (that rare combination of genius and tastefulness, Kurihara will play with both Damon and Naomi and headliners Boris for their upcoming San Francisco date).
Damon and Naomi's preferred status among next-wave elites like the Wire might seem surprising until you realize they were pretty well ahead of the curve in cultivating a pastoral, psych-tinged folkie sound (on prime display on "Cruel Queen," the Yang-fronted ballad that closes Within These Walls). Indeed, for how much they've towed the line of subdued folk pop, there's never been any doubting the group's interesting tastes: during our e-mail chat, Krukowski name-checks Robert Wyatt, Fairport Convention, Scott Walker, and Fotheringay as influences.
That said, the pair are never showy in their pop know-how. Indeed, the best moments on Within These Walls then aren't about blowing minds so much as hitting the right stride. "The Well" glides on Kurihara's guitar lines, "The Turnaround" paces back and forth with staccato strings and familiar harmonies, and "On the Aventine" finds a tender resting place between reverb guitar and soprano saxophone.