You know, I should admit something here that may require me to turn in my honorary hipster card.
I actually like Damon and Naomi more than Galaxie 500, their originating band.
And, yes, I was aware of Galaxie 500 when they were a current recording act -- got a promo cassette (!) in the mail of On Fire (1989) when it was new at the good old U. Md. Record Co-Op. The band at that time was on Rough Trade Records' US wing.
Maybe it was Dean Wareham's voice, maybe it was the almost slavish devotion to the Velvet Underground, but whatever the reason I understood Galaxie 500 more than I liked them.
(It's worth noting here that the band's posthumous Peel Sessions CD remains the one Galaxie 500 album I own.)
1992's Damon and Naomi album, the Kramer-produced More Sad Hits, spoke to me -- to use an overused phrase -- in a way that Galaxie 500 never did.
Since 1992 -- for nearly 20 years now! -- Damon and Naomi have produced music that seems always on the verge of slipping away. And yet, their tunes never dip into the waters of frivolous or twee styles.
It says something about the limited vocabulary of the post C-86 indie landscape that I find it so hard to describe the music of this amazing duo.
To call it folk is a mistake. And to use the ill-defined dream pop label, I'd only be lumping Damon and Naomi in with acts who care more about effects and simple mood than songcraft.
I think we're going to have to invent a genre for Damon and Naomi.
How about intellectual soft rock?
There's nothing ironic about the use of previous forms of popular music here, just simple, direct, and affecting tunes that retain a hint of the unexplainable after multiple listens.
Just listen to album opener "Walking Backwards"(the free MP3 below!): opening with a wash of guitar squall (from Ghost's Michio Kurihara) that sounds like something from the Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) soundtrack, the cut unfurls and then relaxes as Damon Krukowski's voice takes over with Naomi Yang providing the backing vocals.
Recalling the peculiar mix of the Sixties and the modern that made the first Mazzy Star LP such a pleasure in 1990, the track makes no attempt to hide its "backwards" glance.
Naomi sings lead on the second album track, "How Can I Say Goodbye" -- no ? on the CD or lyrics sheet -- and the song is so beautiful that I had to sit down when I first heard it.
The vocals here are quite literally breathtaking without being showy. Recalling the best moments of Sandy Denny's solo years as she veered away from pure folk, the song is the highlight of this record for me.
On "Ophelia", Damon sings "Lord knows who we are but not what we may be" and a listener can hear both regret and exhilaration in his voice. The song soars like AM radio pop from the 1970s but with the silliness of those one-hit wonders replaced with wisdom.
It's worth noting how much the guitar of Michio Kurihara brings to the group now. Damon and Naomi have been working with the guitarist for more years than they were in Galaxie 500.
With the pull-and-twang-and-squall of that guitar, Damon and Naomi have a more robust sound that seems less rooted to any one obvious predecessor; one could could even imagine a performance where it was just the two vocalists with Kurihara's guitar behind them, rippling off Jeff Beck-ish lines.
Damon and Naomi are not the sort of artists who suddenly introduce a radical element into their work. No, the changes are more subtle than that.
And it's no insult to say that False Beats and True Hearts should appeal to many long-time fans of the band.
That said, there are new things at work here: Michio Kurihara seems more like a member of the group now, his guitar adding another voice to Damon's and Naomi's.
And the woodwinds on this record give the album a classic feel; what might have been ethereal on past records is now organic and direct, the emotions clearly expressed in the poetic lyrics.
Damon and Naomi deliver moments of beauty without being pretentious about it.
That counts for a lot in today's musical climate.
False Beats and True Hearts should warm the hearts of old fans of the band.
And for a listener who wants to give the band a chance, this is a bright, sunny way to start.
Download an MP3 of "Walking Backwards" here.
You can buy False Beats and True Hearts from Amazon US on CD here or on vinyl here.
Follow Damon and Naomi on their own lovely website.
You can also follow them on the 20-20-20 Records label website here.