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The Haul: Dean Wareham's Black Postcards and Galaxie 500's On Fire

Dean Wareham's Black Postcards

Shortly after its March 2008 release, my friend Scott recommended Dean Wareham’s Black Postcards, his memoir about growing up in New Zealand and New York, getting into music, and recording and touring with both Galaxie 500 and Luna. The only hold-up was that I was almost completely unfamiliar with Wareham’s music, despite being inundated with references to Galaxie 500 when I was getting into second generation slow-core bands like Codeine, Rex, and Low. When I found a remainder copy of Black Postcards, I figured, “What the hell,” snapped it up, and read it over a few days.

Black Postcards is an entertaining read, even if Wareham isn’t always the most likeable narrator. The early sections on growing up in New York and getting into punk rock and post-punk were the most appealing, but I also enjoyed his trip up to Boston to attend college at Harvard and the formation of his first “real” band, the slow-core forefathers Galaxie 500. His tours of duty with Galaxie 500 and Luna provide excellent inside information on what it was like to be an indie rock band in the late 1980s and a struggling major label band in the mid 1990s, but they also paint an occasionally unflattering picture of Wareham as a motivated, unbending band leader. Wareham can’t disguise how his personality clashes with in-band couple Damon and Naomi led to the break-up of Galaxie 500. He also can’t gloss over how his on-tour affair with new Luna bassist Britta Phillips (once the singing voice of 1980s cartoon singer Jem) broke up his marriage with the mother of his child, which leads to some painful recollections of his life around the time of his divorce. Wareham’s glib sense of humor provides some levity during this part of the book, but tabloid fodder rock and roll cliché of that event is difficult to ignore.

If you’re interested in the three distinct era of rock music covered, Black Postcards is worth a read, but knowing the songs he discusses ahead of time would be a help for the Galaxie 500 and Luna specific sections. My recourse for this knowledge gap was to quickly run out and grab On Fire, the Wareham album that carries the most critical acclaim and came off the best within Black Postcards.

114. Galaxie 500 – On Fire LP – 20 20 20, 2009 [1989] – $18

Galaxie 500's On Fire

I’ve dabbled with Galaxie 500 and Luna before, specifically this album for an incarnation of iPod Chicanery, but the only thing I actually owned from either group was the one-track promotional single for “Chinatown.” (Side note: Is any format more loathsome than the one-track promotional single? I know I have a few of these floating around from my used CD bin days, and every time I was excited enough about a dollar CD not to look at the songs included until I got home. Potential match: the four song promotional single, which includes the album mix, the single mix, and two call-out hooks.) The Galaxie 500 template is relatively simple: loping tempos, reaching, falsetto vocals, low-key lyrics, vaguely autobiographical lyrics, lightly psychedelic guitar solos, and a general debt to the Velvet Underground. That group is a notable blind spot for me, but I still know a mid-tempo Velvet Underground song when I hear one, and Galaxie 500’s songs aren’t usually that far off from it. The best element is Wareham’s guitar work; he fills a lot of space with relatively few chords, treating the canvas with light brush strokes and muted reverb.

On Fire is a nice addition to my Sunday afternoon listening pile, but two things keep me from pulling it out more often and/or buying more of Wareham’s music. First, Wareham’s voice is fine when he isn’t reaching too much, but when his falsetto begins to crack on “Strange,” I long for the Naomi-fronted “Another Day,” which comes much closer to traditional lilting dream pop vocals. (If Black Postcards taught me anything, it’s that Wareham would never cede control of the vocals for fear of losing his stranglehold on the band.) Wareham’s vocals are likely an acquired taste, but I’ve listened to On Fire enough times to accept that I’m never going to love them. Second—and this point will either sound harsh or long-overdue—Galaxie 500 is not an exciting band. Like most mid-tempo slow-core, the threat of boredom is strong, and after a side of On Fire, I’m just about there. Having a vague sense of Wareham’s typical sound while reading Black Postcards made me scratch my head about his major label deal. While I can’t deny that there were some leftfield hit singles in the 1990s alternative scene (Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” might be the closest stylistic kin), it’s hard to imagine one of his songs becoming a hit in anything other than adult alternative, which isn’t the easiest format to break a song. Potentially irritable vocals? Not remotely exciting? Let’s sign them right now!