Sunday, July 7, 2013

Mike McGonigal's "Temperature's Rising: Galaxie 500": Book Review

This collaboration expands an oral history from participants and observers, one of whom, bassist Naomi Yang, crafted the visual content enhancing this careful indie-rock band's image a quarter-century ago. That span surprises her, as she reflects in this compilation's final sentence: "I am grateful for not letting my youth go to waste and I am looking forward to adventures to come." Even before they formed what began as a shambling, untutored Galaxie 500, together from Fall 1987 to Spring 1991, they shared some youthful adventures together, unlike many a rock band's pedigree.

Yang and her partner, drummer Damon Krukowski, have known guitarist-singer Dean Wareham since they were teenagers at the same (unnamed here, but Dalton) Manhattan prep school in the late 1970s. They earned degrees from Harvard, with Yang and Krukowski staying on as graduate students for a while while Wareham worked as a clerical temp. Meanwhile, they started a band in Boston. But it did not sound like Mission of Burma or hardcore. As journalist Francis Dimenno observes: "Their album covers made a statement. Cool Restraint. Educated. Upper Class. Lots of Social Contacts."

As an intern for graphic designer Milton Glaser before she began her visual arts degree at Harvard, Yang possessed a confident air in her own promotional material. When the Italian font she hand-cut from a wedding invitation (which would grace many of Galaxie 500's productions) did not have two letters needed, she drew her own for the band's first cassette labels. She added such refinement seamlessly to the pre-digital mechanical and knife-trimmed process that she meticulously annotated as typographical directions for the band's debut LP Today (1988). These examples, added to the sounds the band labored to produce from raw promise, demonstrate the trio's concern for precision.

It's more elusive from McGonigal's verbal transcriptions (many appeared in a series for Pitchfork in 2010) what Galaxie 500 sounded like, for a curious reader coming to this collection. Writer Martin Aston sums them up: "They played slow when everyone was fast. They were defiantly lo-fi before it became accepted, they preceded shoegazing, but never felt as posy as much of what followed. It was totally out of time, not in a scene, music that existed because they just felt like playing it, or were limited by how they played. Punk mentality. 'We're aspiring to primitivism,' Damon once told me."

Aston's claim that Galaxie 500 "never felt as posy" as those who came later may be debatable. For evidence, the stylized, rarified, or shimmering nature of many photographs by Yang and colleagues such as classmate Sergio Huidor or Shimmy Disc's Michael Macioce (at the World's Fair site in Queens) document well the band's determination to stand out from their leather-jacketed peers. Even in denim, Wareham tries to exude sophistication, while Krukowski's similarly rumpled fashion plays off of his knowing scowl. And as for Yang, her bold earrings and dress sense draw one's attention.

The band, as photos and their recollections illustrate (no questions are asked by McGonigal; he silently arranges the responses in brief chapters around chronological themes) how the three worked together--before they did not. Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins notes Galaxie 500's lack of a solo star: he liked Yang's "simple naive approach" on the bass, while Wareham's "Velvets-y delivery" by "smart lyrics", a dry vocal style, and nimble guitar filled the space left by Krukowski's "expressive" and often spare, jazz-tinged percussion washes and taps.

The drummer explains how he heard the guitar at the top, his partner's bass in the middle of the soundstage on stage or in his mental mix, and himself at the bottom. Fitting this model, Krukowski felt it was "like joining the circus". Under Kramer's production, skillful singles led to an amazing first album, that album to another many judged even better, On Fire (1989) on Rough Trade, and acclaim. 

For a while at gigs, on the road, or in rehearsal, the band got along. Predictably, Wareham laments (briefly here, but see for far more the first hundred pages of his 2008 memoir Black Postcards) that the pressure of a pair teamed off against himself made for poor negotiations as a purported trio. As the band's power struggles grew, they--all in their mid-twenties--contended against outside pressures. Courted by Rough Trade, Yang recoiled. What the businessmen presented in the guise of friendship, she suspected as manipulation. Producing product, for the three committed to crafting quality, clashed with Galaxie 500's ethic.

Their rapid from-underground-to-college-radio success kept some misgivings internally shrouded and externally sidestepped. Kramer remembers: "The band was standing on top of a mountain looking down. The first record didn't seem like it got any bad reviews anywhere." Their second met with even better reception, but their third, This Is Our Music (1990), came with the record label and mismanagement problems (not helped by Kramer's addiction) that left Galaxie 500 straitened. Yang includes a photo of the "money envelope" with penciled scrawls of what cash came in from promoters and what went out for cabfare. Even at the height of their career, the lessons learned on such trials as their U.S. 1990 tour about to the realities of playing a distant city one week and then rushing back to the corporate temp job, as Wareham reflects, sobered them.

McGonigal's determination to match Yang's spare commentary on her archive of artifacts with unadorned transcripts may please fans, but for those less informed, this may not meet a newcomer's needs. The verbal editor provides neither an index nor introduction. True, a discography could be cobbled by a careful reader from Yang's inclusions. Most new fans will prefer a music guide for a standard overview of the band's influences, eclectic covers, lyrical moods, and production emphases. Kramer in an aside laments not capturing Galaxie 500 live when they could play as loud as Sonic Youth; the band's dynamic range on stage and on record, and (within a short career) their quickly improved dexterity both merit more mention than either the trio or their colleagues here provide.

"I was always drawn to the simple and the well proportioned rather than the flashy." Yang's aesthetic speaks for her band. They all squelch any reunion rumors. "We made three albums together, and those records are our children; even though we're divorced we still need to talk about the children occasionally." Wareham's tone captures the steady (or a few wobbly) judgments Galaxie 500 made, as musicians and as creators, to leave the best they could for discerning audiences then, and, enriched by Yang's contributions on their behalf, now in this handsomely assembled presentation of words and depictions about memorable music, (PopMatters 5-9-13; 4-23-13 to Amazon US)

No comments: