The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Galaxie 500
Today / On Fire reissues Ross Pounds , April 6th, 2010 09:43

Passed by without much of an afterthought, Galaxie 500 formed in Boston in 1986, released three albums, then split up in 1991. As is so often the case (take Big Star as another example), it was only after their demise that their influence became clear. Taking their cue from the disparate likes of the Red Krayola, Mission of Burma and Young Marble Giants, Galaxie 500's Dean Wareham, Damon Krukowski, and Naomi Yang concocted dreamy soundscapes, songs so lovelorn and fragile that it still feels kind of intrusive listening in. Listening to something like 'Blue Thunder', the gorgeous, evocative opening track of their 1989 album On Fire is like the music playing in your mind when you take that beautiful girl back to your house for the first time, the song playing on the radio as you stick your head out the sunroof, burning down the highway after quitting your job in that dead-end diner. It's a trick Galaxie 500 pulled off like no other band could: their songs are at once both intimate and anthemic, walls of sound which stick in your heart, Wareham's wail the last thing in your head as it hits the pillow. It's music to dream to, to love to, a soundtrack to the better things in life.

There's so much of Galaxie 500 in other bands, it's hard to know where to start. The hushed intimacy that permeates their oeuvre calls to mind the most recent bearers of that particular torch, The XX, while Wareham's beautifully off-key voice, something like Tom Verlaine if Television stuck around for slowcore, gave confidence to those whose vocal talents were not the strongest weapon in their arsenal: from Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Alec Ounsworth to Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart. It's like Silver Jews' David Berman once said: "All my favourite singers couldn't sing." The minimalist psychedelia of Wareham's guitar, too, brings to mind John Squire's work on early Stone Roses material, as well as that of contemporaries such as Spacemen 3, The Feelies and Sonic Youth, whose own Thurston Moore, with good reason, called Today "the guitar record of 1988."

On Fire, the group's second album and first for Rough Trade, is their defining moment, rich and remarkably assured, the clearest distillation of what made them so great. The blissful George Harrison cover 'Isn't it a Pity', for example, utilises minimalist tropes to wonderfully expansive effect, using the same few words and chords to create something achingly beautiful, documenting the break-up of a relationship with heartbreaking simplicity, adding an extra dimension to the foundations Harrison (or rather Bob Dylan, the song's author) so carefully laid. "Isn't it a pity/isn't it a shame/how we break each others hearts/and cause each other pain," Wareham plaintively sings over cascading guitar, bluesy notes stabbing in the background. It's almost enough to bring a tear to the eye, to make you want to embrace those closest to you, tell them it'll all be okay. Listening to Galaxie 500 is at once exhausting and rewarding, the knowledge that you've heard something of genuine beauty lying alongside brutal dissections of failed relationships, documents of that innately human ability to fuck things up, to hurt the ones you love most of all. "Things fall apart" Yeats once said, a phrase at once so plain but so pregnant with meaning. And that's what you get here, on 'Isn't it a Pity', on Today, on This is our Music: it all appears so simple on top, but there's so much more underneath, layer under layer under layer.

There's something about Galaxie 500 that sets them far apart from the shoegaze scene they've so long been lumped in with. It's a deft touch, a half-trodden subtlety, a hushed finger to the lip to quieten a brewing storm. They were a band not shy of melody (as keenly evidenced on Today in particular), and one who were not particularly concerned with change: it's been pointed out by many a critic in the past that the differences between Today and final album This is our Music are minimal at most. But that's not the point. They weren't a band who ever needed to change their sound, but to carry on doing what they did: to hone that downbeat grace, to embrace something no one was doing, something that no other band has really been able to replicate since. The material on these three albums is as fresh and as invigorating and as chest-tighteningly, heart-skippingly beautiful as it was the day they came out. Looking back and looking forward all at once. They've had their fair share of imitators, but listening to Galaxie 500 again only serves to confirm one thing: no one is ever going to come close.