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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The slow and steady perfection of Galaxie 500’s <i>On Fire</i>

The slow and steady perfection of Galaxie 500’s On Fire

One of the best things about old records is the liner notes. Pick up a jazz or pop LP of a certain vintage and you’re damn near guaranteed to run straight into a wall of hyperbolic poetry on the back of the sleeve. Nobody on this earth hard-sells as shamelessly as old-school liner-note writers. Their copy is ecstatic and over-the-top, desperate to convince you that whatever you’re holding in your hands is It, The Absolute Hipness, Today’s Tomorrow, The Sound Of Our Young Future, so Go Catch The Fever, You Freaky-Deaky Kool Kats.

The liner notes to Galaxie 500’s 1989 masterpiece, On Fire, are reminiscent of those old flop-sweat-drenched testimonials. Penned by Mark Kramer, the album’s producer, the notes rave about the Great Chicago Fire, Nero burning Rome, and Kramer watching Disney on TV. It reads like a feverish prose poem, one that doesn’t mention music or the band at all until the very end when Kramer finally invokes the trio with a tagline that those old liner-note writers would have killed for: “Come ride the fiery breeze of GALAXIE 500.”

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When On Fire breezed through 1989, it landed at No. 31 on The Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll, sandwiched in between Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 and the Batman soundtrack. Much like its heroes, The Velvet Underground, Galaxie 500 was a band whose critical success and influence vastly outweighed its commercial success. Its spot on the Pazz & Jop list is the closest the band would ever come to being in the same room as Prince and Janet; you weren’t in any danger of hearing “Snowstorm” after “Batdance” on the radio.

But you can hear On Fire everywhere now. The band’s signature mix of reverb-heavy, dreamy guitars and slow, languorous tempos has cast a wide shadow over indie-rock bands like Beach House, Deerhunter, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, and Broken Social Scene. They also helped kick off the slowcore scene, whose sound was defined by groups like Low (also produced by Kramer), Red House Painters, Codeine, and Bedhead. Slowcore guitars didn’t shred; they seeped through speakers like water spreading under a flooded bathroom’s door. That glacial-pace approach to rock music would end up inspiring heavier bands like Jesu and Thou—subgenres like doom metal and post-metal owe their existence just as much to albums like Codeine’s Frigid Stars and Red House Painters’ Down Colorful Hill as they do to Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.

All the defining elements of Galaxie 500’s sound that were present on Today, the band’s 1988 debut, sound sharper and more focused on On Fire. Damon Krukowski’s cymbal splashes and Naomi Yang’s Peter Hook-inspired melodic bass lines set the tempo—slow and drowsy. Dean Wareham’s vocals and guitar work are the wild cards, adding spikes of volume and feedback to keep things unpredictable. Like so many indie-rock singers, he’s a sad bastard, but he’s not too serious about it: No matter how melancholy Wareham sounds, you never get the impression that he’s going to fill his pockets with rocks and go wade into a lake after the recording stops.

While the band hailed from Boston, it had little in common with the hardcore groups that were all the rage there. Its musical ancestors and peers hailed from Hoboken and New York City: The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, The Velvet Underground. The band members were more interested in musical minimalists like Young Marble Giants (whose “Final Day” they covered during one of their Peel Sessions), the twee pop of the C86 anorak scene, and the jangling homemade guitar rock coming out of Wareham’s native New Zealand. For Galaxie 500, what united all these different groups was an emphasis on passion over virtuosity. It was why Moe Tucker was their favorite Velvet. According to Wareham, “She’s the only one of them who’s remained at all true to the spirit of what they were doing. The primitivism of it.”

It’s a testament to On Fire’s quality that it leads off with its best song and still manages to keep going strong after hitting that peak early. “Blue Thunder” builds slowly, starting off with gentle strums and Wareham’s yearning vocals. Yang lays down a bass line that’s like a tranquil pond that Krukowski keeps rippling with drum hits. It all builds up to Wareham’s guitar solo, a moment of expressive beauty that feels like a dam inside the song bursting open.

Wareham was the Paul Banks of his era: Like the Interpol singer, he knew how to sell the hell out of a batshit lyric. While nothing on On Fire is as nutty as Today’s “I just wanna be your tugboat captain” or This Is Our Music’s “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit / And your dog refused to look at it,” Wareham takes mundane and goofy scenarios like eating a Twinkie in a department store (“Strange”) or smashing a girlfriend’s toy bird (“Plastic Bird”) and turns them into deeply affecting songs.

Rob Sheffield, in the Spin Alternative Record Guide, described Galaxie 500 as “fabulous tub music,” and most of the songs on the band’s second album support this label. The reverb and atmosphere on On Fire is so thick you can practically float on top of it like salt water in an isolation tank. But there are enough flashes of noisy experimentation to keep it from being an easy soak. The group brought in alto saxophonist Ralph Carney to blow all over “Decomposing Trees” and an alternate take of “Blue Thunder” (the sax fits the former perfectly and shits all over the latter). They also turn the tranquil strums of “Another Day,” which features a rare lead vocal by Yang, into a psychedelic freakout by layering backwards guitars on top of the trio’s playing.

A tell-tale sign of a band’s greatness is its ability to make any cover song sound like its own; Galaxie 500 pull off this trick on On Fire’s closing song, a sweet and somber take on George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity.” It’s not the best cover in its catalog; that distinction should go to Today’s “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste,” which reimagines Jonathan Richman’s a cappella number as a raging guitar squall (its haunting cover of Joy Division’s “Ceremony” is a close second).

While Wareham, Yang, and Krukowski sound completely in sync with each other on On Fire, the reality is that the trio was already unraveling around this time. The group briefly broke up after recording Today over a dispute about songwriting credits: Wareham wanted to credit the songs to individual contributors rather than the group as a whole. He convinced Krukowski and Yang to stay on and play a few shows in support of Today’s release, and they were able to make peace for a while. But those intra-band tensions that were put on the back burner during the On Fire sessions would boil over during the making of the trio’s third and final album, 1990’s This Is Our Music.

The group split in 1991 after Wareham refused to go on the band’s Japanese tour, and this time the breakup stuck. According to the former bandmates, they haven’t been in the same room together since then. They have continued to do interesting work outside of Galaxie 500: Wareham would go on to front another dream-pop project, Luna, while married couple Yang and Krukowski make psych-influenced folk-rock as Damon & Naomi.

One thing that still unites the trio is its commitment to preserving the band’s legacy. Galaxie 500 is one of the few major indie bands left that hasn’t stained its reputation with a cash-in reunion tour or half-hearted follow-up album. It’s left behind three impeccable records that still sound as beautiful and insular now as they did when they first wafted through the underground. Out of print for years, Galaxie 500’s records are available now in physical and digital formats. It’s never been easier to hitch a ride on their fiery breeze.