Music to drench your life’s dreams with
Discover the music of one of alternative rock's best kept secrets
Sometimes you rediscover near-forgotten bands in the strangest of ways. Last week, while watching Kodachrome, a dramatized film based on a New York Times (NYT) story about a small film-processing shop, which would become the last place to develop Kodak’s iconic colour transparency film, I found myself rewinding to the late 1980s to listen to a band that was short-lived but also immensely influential as a trendsetter. Kodachrome is a moving film by Mark Raso about an estranged son (Jason Sudeikis) and his terminally ill photographer father (Ed Harris) and their road trip to a Kansas town where they want to get the latter’s last film rolls developed before the photograph shop stops Kodachrome processing. The son is a record- label executive, and, in the course of the movie, we also discover his eclectic taste in music, including a song by the band Galaxie 500.
The original 2010 story written, incidentally, by A.G. Sulzberger, who is now the publisher of NYT, forms the factual backdrop for the fictionalized film whose soundtrack, full of songs by film composer Agatha Kaspar, includes one by Galaxie 500—Melt Away. Its short and simple lyrics, delivered in a soft high pitch by frontman and guitarist Dean Wareham, and dreamy, hallucinogenic music—languorous guitar riffs laid over a flourish-free but well-crafted bed of rhythm created by drummer Damon Krukowski and bassist Naomi Young—typifies Galaxie 500’s genre, which would come to be named dream-pop. That pigeonhole doesn’t do justice to the band’s music. Formed in 1987, while the three friends were at Harvard University, Galaxie 500 lasted till 1991, released just three albums and were largely overlooked by the music scene of their times, which was a shame but probably also inevitable.
In the post-punk era that they were formed, Galaxie 500 were an antithesis to the loud, fuzzy sound of many bands of those times. It would take a few more years before more bands of their ilk, playing lo-fi, shoegaze, slowcore (call it what you like) music, would make it on the scene. Galaxie 500 (named after an old Ford car model) were pioneers of that sound to come: Their music wasn’t in your face; their lyrics were laid-back and introspective; and their vocalist was self-confident without the aggression. That may have also been the reason why their three albums—Today, On Fire, and This Is Our Music—were drowned out. And forgotten.
For many years, the albums were out of print. Till 2010, when the three were re-released as CDs along with new material, including bonus tracks and a session with BBC’s late John Peel, whose legendary magic touch kindled many a band’s success during the years he hosted a programme for the radio channel.
The reissues were a godsend. And this time the timing was perfect. Through the 1990s, bands playing lo-fi, shoegaze music had spawned audiences, even cults, and many hungrily devoured Galaxie 500’s re-released albums. All the albums are remarkably good but my personal favourite is the one in the middle, 1989’s On Fire. Produced by Kramer (aka Mark Kramer), the American producer recognized for his role in the evolution of popular music’s slowcore genre, On Fire best showcases the band’s sound. Wareham’s eerily haunting vocals, high-pitched yet intimate and relaxed, his liquidly subtle lead guitar, and the softness of the band’s rhythm section, envelop you like the caress of a gentle wave and can become a soundtrack for your own dreams.
The opening song on the album, Blue Thunder, begins softly before swelling to a billowing surge as Wareham sings his spare lyrics—just a verse really, followed by the repeat of choruses: Thinkin’ of blue thunder/ Singin’ to myself/ Thinkin’ how fast it moves/ Feeling how it turns/ I was singin’ something/ Out on Route 128/ Thinkin’ how blue it looks/ Singin’ out aloud/ My my blue thunder/ My my blue thunder.... Galaxie 500’s songs are all very personal, dealing with intimate musings, sometimes about ordinary incidents and feelings, and yet, because of the way they are crafted, they are able to connect remarkably with the listener, flowing gently over the senses yet never intruding.
Among the 10 tracks in On Fire is a cover of George Harrison’s 1970 song, Isn’t It A Pity. Harrison originally wrote that song for The Beatles but it was rejected and later featured on his first solo album, All Things Must Pass. Many people have covered Isn’t It A Pity—Nina Simone, Billy Preston, and My Morning Jacket included—but Galaxie 500 take that introspective song about a failed love affair and give it a gentle, dreamy incarnation.
All three Galaxie 500 albums are collectibles, especially if you’re moved by lo-fi minimalism. Decades after their short run, their rediscovery comes as a reassuring breath of fresh air, particularly in an era where technology (computer programmes, auto-tune and other electronic aides) sometimes appear to strip the purity from music. Though the trio disbanded in 1991, after releasing their third album, many bands have been influenced by their music. After the dissolution, Wareham went on to form yet another band, Luna. And the remaining two members formed Damon & Naomi. Both bands are still alive, Luna having spawned a cult-like breed of fans. And both bands carry with them the genes of the early pioneer of dreamy indie rock to which they originally belonged.
The lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘Blue Thunder’ by Galaxie 500 from ‘On Fire’
2. ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ by Galaxie 500 from ‘On Fire’
3. ‘Melt Away’ by Galaxie 500 from ‘This is Our Music’
4. ‘Temperature’s Rising’ by Galaxie 500 from ‘Today’
5. ‘Tiger Lily’ by Luna from ‘Bewitched’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets @sanjoynarayan