Thursday, June 11, 2009
G - Galaxie 500 - "Today"
I’ve always been a little torn about what I’m looking for in a rock musician. Is it more important to be creative, to stand out amidst the rock and roll wasteland – even if that means presenting something not particularly “good”? Or how about passion, commitment & emotion? Though rock music by nature is instilled with momentum and a certain level of energy, should you want your music more relatable: either in the “they’re saying what I feel” way or a “they mean what they say” manner? What about the rock star trappings – aren’t they important, too? Attitude & charisma is vital – both for standing out and as a rallying point. Despite my disdain for celebrity, I can’t help wanting my rock stars to look and BE the part, not just act it; for as long as they can back up this attitude with a passable amount of talent, I’m cool with that. Rock constantly feeds on the “sex, drugs, & rock & roll” burnout mentality, and there is an endless supply of cannon fodder to be built up and mowed down.
I’m also torn on the role nerds should play in rock. Rock nerds first got the nerve to stand proudly on their own in the wake of Dylan, as earnest intelligent folkies moved into the electric arena. They helped personalize rock beyond the boy-meets (loses)-girl basics into something broader, even though they sometimes got too “deep” for their own good, PAUL SIMON. (“I am a rock”, indeed – I wish I was a rock to bounce off that sad little bald skull of his.). John Lennon was the poster child for these nerds: despite his bluster and his defensive exterior, he possessed the nerd gene in full blossom. Plenty of the psychedelic or art rock groups of the late 60’s/early 70’s contained at least one dyed in the wool dork. But in my opinion, the two godfathers of nerd rock were, on the surface, complete opposites: Iggy Pop of the Stooges & Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. One was a notorious wildman – truly the perfect example of the charismatic rock and roll frontman; the other was a textbook geek who was either almost painfully oblivious or unguardedly proud of the dork he was. They both got their point across through disarmingly forward lyrics that captured the essence of their characters, for better or worse, and both ROCKED. Together, they spawned generations of offspring who learned you could be honest about who you were in the rock arena while living up the rock and roll promise (is it a surprise that in their early days, the Sex Pistols covered songs by both Iggy & Jonathan?)
That said, having the strength & commitment to express yourself freely as a rock songwriter doesn’t mean you could, or should, be a “singer-songwriter”. Singers like Dylan, Richman, & Lou Reed showed you didn’t have to be a technically proficient (or even listenable) to be a successful rock singer. What you needed was an individual voice and phrasing to bring your lyrics to life. It was HOW they sang that made these three stand out – not everyone could do it. It’s one of the catch 22’s of the DIY aesthetic: it’s your voice, use it – but don’t be surprised if people don’t want to listen to it.
Guitarist Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 (later in Luna) maybe should not have been the singer. He has a high warbly voice that veers off pitch constantly, especially when reaching for notes far out of his range. The lower notes are tolerable, but those high ones – hey buddy, it’s unpleasant. In some of the songs on this first (& on subsequent) Galaxie 500 record, he tries to make it more presentable by doubling his voice an octave apart. It happens far too often, and doesn’t help. The unfortunate vocals are the worst thing about this album.
Luckily, there are so many positives to counter this negative. This is undoubtedly a shoegazer album akin to bands like Spacemen 3 & The Pefect Disaster: 3 chords (maybe), slow to mid-tempo songs, fully defined instrumental sound, nice distorted guitar. It’s the sound of a sunrise: the gentle unobtrusive tapping of the Damon Krukowski’s drums, the quiet strumming of the guitar which occasionally bursts into slow feedback leads resemble the sun peeking up over the horizon with sharp streams of sunlight piercing the clouds (deep..huh..maybe I AM a rock). On top of that is the unreal potent bass playing of Naomi Yang, who clearly used Peter Hook of Joy Division / New Order as a starting point in that the bass is relatively simple & played high up on the fretboard, & expanding that to play countermelodies during the verses; almost like a lead instrument without actually soloing or overplaying like a Geddy Lee or Chris Squire. The instrumental sound presented by Galaxie 500 is a very comforting, snug, & warm: the obtrusive vocals don’t diminish its quality.
The songs are very good – they’ve got the sleepy feel of the third Velvet Underground album. Lou Reed is obviously a big influence on Dean’s guitar playing and sound, though his lyrics are more Jonathan Richmanian. To wit,
“I don't wanna stay at your party
I don't wanna talk with your friends
I don't wanna vote for your president
I just wanna be your tugboat captain”
OK, sure. When you try to go “cute”, there’s a danger of getting too “precious”. Dean crosses that line a few times, but hey, it’s their first record, and by the next album, they’d improved quite a bit from this already impressive start. The albums starts strong with the gorgeous “Flowers”, but hits its stride on side two, with tremendous songs in “Oblivious”, “Temperature’s Rising”, “Instrumental” (finally – an instrumental that lives up to its name!), and the college hit “Tugboat”. There’s also an interesting cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste”, which is more of a curio than anything else (as the original was sung a-capella, it’s weird to hear, you know, instruments). Regardless, this is a truly fine record from a seemingly underwhelming band.
VERDICT: with a different vocalist, this could’ve been fantastic. As it is, it’s simply great.