The Boston Phoenix October 12 - 19, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Pop secrets

Damon & Naomi and Francine

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

Four of Damon & Naomi's least favorite words in the English language are "slow, sensitive indie rock." That, of course, is the phrase they've been hearing to describe their music for about 10 years now. Before that it was often the phrase people used to refer to the duo's previous band, Galaxie 500.

"I never thought we were doing that," notes singer/bassist Naomi Yang with a grimace over a soda at Cambridge's 1369 Coffeehouse. "Back with Galaxie 500, we thought we were punk rock. And now we think we're doing folk music -- but of course our audience doesn't think so." Adds singer/drummer/guitarist Damon Krukowski, "I have nothing against rock music and still love a lot of it. We just don't happen to play it right now."

Most likely it's the "indie rock" part that hangs them up the most. As for being slow and sensitive . . . well, they kind of are. But indie rock implies a narrow, or at least strictly modern, set of reference points, whereas Damon & Naomi are long-time collectors of all that's great and obscure (Krukowski is also an occasional contributor to these pages). And musicologists don't make the same kind of albums as everybody else -- the more you've absorbed, the harder you're likely to try to produce something that you haven't heard before.

So it is with the duo's latest, Damon & Naomi with Ghost (Sub Pop). As far as Damon & Naomi (who celebrate the disc's release with a show upstairs at the Middle East this Wednesday) are concerned, the real news is that they've collaborated with a Japanese band whom they've loved for years. For most listeners, the news is simply that this lovely, haunting set evokes a number of different styles -- airy psychedelia, the outer reaches of European progressive, art pop à la Burt Bacharach -- without sounding too tied to any one time or place. The three members of Ghost give the album a wider sonic range, providing a variety of keyboard sounds (and one ripping guitar solo) that come across as neither modern nor vintage. On the eight-minute centerpiece, "Tonka," Yang sings the sort of curling, circular melody that Stereolab tend to favor -- so the obvious step would have been to turn it into a tape-loop extravaganza. Instead, Damon & Naomi color it with a simple acoustic piano and folkish acoustic strums, building slowly to that big guitar solo. It doesn't sound electronic, it doesn't sound '60s, it just sounds like itself.

The duo's friendship with Ghost goes back to the last Damon & Naomi album, 1997's Playback Singers (Sub Pop), which found Ghost making a rare US appearance for the release party at T.T. the Bear's Place. "It's pretty rare that a new band captures our attention the way they did, where we're as attracted [to that band] as we are to the classics in our collection," Krukowski notes. They wound up linking Ghost with the Drag City label, which released the band's Japanese albums in the US. And when the time came for a new Damon & Naomi album, they wanted to do a collaboration. "We had to convince Sub Pop it would be worth it," Yang says. "It was like, `Yes, we know there are 40 million guitar players in the US. But you really need to fly this one over from Tokyo.' "

Damon & Naomi wrote most of the material (there are also covers of Alex Chilton and Tim Hardin), and the arrangements were worked out by long distance -- Damon & Naomi and Ghost both recorded their own versions of the songs and the separate ideas were eventually combined into a third version. Recording for the album was done during a week when Ghost were in America last year; and that was where the cultural differences came in. In particular, Krukowski recalls a moment that alone must have been worth the plane fare; it also illustrates the music-collector jones of all the involved parties. "We were recording `Tonka' and trying to decide on a keyboard sound when I thought about having a fuzz electric piano, something like [early-'70s jazz/prog band] Soft Machine. So [Ghost member] Kazuo Ogino plays this eight-minute piano solo, perfectly like [Soft Machine keyboardist] Mike Ratledge -- it was like he was in the room." Little did they know, however, that Ogino had just done something roughly equivalent to playing "Free Bird." "He looked at me," Krukowski continues, "and said, `No, no, you must erase this. We will be killed.' "

The fun and games pretty much ended when Ghost were out of the picture, though -- Damon & Naomi have always been a bit obsessive, but this time they felt the reputations of two bands were at stake. With their own overdubs and the mixing still to be completed, the remainder of the album was more than a teeth-grinding experience -- it became literally a root-canal experience. "We put ourselves under an extreme amount of pressure," Krukowski says. "Making an album by yourself is one thing, but if we did this one wrong, we could make fools of our friends and a band we admire besides. During the mixing stage, I was grinding my teeth so hard that I wound up cracking one, and the nerve was exposed for long enough that it just died. So I had a root canal right in the middle of the mixing."

"It always amazes me how other people think that making records is fun," Yang adds.

That wasn't the first time Damon & Naomi have pushed things a little far in pursuit of their muse. From this writer's perspective, Yang and Krukowski both come across as likable, low-key types. But there's evidence that their former Galaxie 500 bandmate Dean Wareham wasn't the only one in that band with a temper -- in fact, bad blood from the Galaxie break-up still lingers on both sides. Krukowski recalls a moment on a Damon & Naomi tour where they got hit by airport hassles in London; he reacted by ripping up his boarding pass and throwing the pieces at the flight attendant's feet. "She looked at me and said, `I can't help you. You are not here,' " he recalls sheepishly. (They made the plane after a kind soul helped scotch-tape the pieces back together.) And he admits to having lost his temper on stage more than once. "Never in Boston, though, but I'm capable of throwing a fit and abusing the audiences. I have a problem with authority, and I guess soundmen can fall under that banner."

The irony here is that Damon & Naomi have been through all this intensity over music that, especially on the new album, registers as calm and beautiful. "I think we've always been after that," Krukowski notes. "Maybe now we've finally got enough reach that we can do it."

(Damon & Naomi perform this Wednesday, October 18, upstairs at the Middle East. Call 864-EAST.)

FRANCINE. "Don't leave during the first song," Francine frontman Clayton Scoble warned me shortly before his band took the stage at their release party at Lilli's a couple weeks ago. Far be it for me, however, to walk out on the heartfelt cover of Boston's "Rock 'n' Roll Band" that they wound up opening with. Playing goofy covers is a time-honored local tradition, but this was a kick because it was so out of character -- big, blustery, and fist-waving, everything that Francine are not.

The in-character part was a kick as well. Francine are currently something of a buzz band (the Lilli's show was packed), and that represents a victory for the thoughtful-pop crowd -- the night's other cover, the Kinks' wistful "Do You Remember Walter," is closer to what they're about. Their album, Forty on a Fall Day (on Q Division), is the sort of complex epic that pop obsessives love. It leans toward the Abbey Road model of a unified album, with song segues and instrumental links. Scoble proves in the first track, "Set of Dune" that he can write an indelible hook (its chorus recurs in the next song, "Trampoline"); elsewhere he goes as much for the slow build and the gradual payoff -- you have to hear the album a couple times before the songs stick with you, but they stay stuck from there.

"If this album makes pop purists a little antsy, that's fine," he noted before the show. "I wanted to have some fun with it, be able to do things I've heard on some of my favorite records -- the ones that make me say, `Man, I wish I had the time to be that whimsical.' I had to fight for some of those one-minute instrumentals, because [producer] Jon Lupfer thought we had too many of them -- I had one absolute tantrum in the studio, saying they really needed to be there."

Another reason hardcore-pop fans will appreciate Scoble and company is that he's one himself. One of the album's best songs, "Pop Warner," is about his fantasy of attending a ball game with Kim Deal (even though she winds up drinking all his beer). And he makes no secret of his current (musical) passion for Mary Timony -- he says that homages to her are all over the album, though I hear this clearly on only one ethereal track, "Jet to Norway."

"I just hope she doesn't sue me," he notes, though the two haven't actually met. "I don't want to meet people I admire that much. There'd just be some pointless, valueless interchange that wouldn't do anybody any good." Judging from their respective albums, however, I'd guess that the two would have a lot to talk about.

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