Within These Walls – Reviews
All Music (****1/2)
The release of their seventh album, 2007′s Within These Walls, means that Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang have been releasing albums as a duo for 15 years. Shocking, yes. Even more shocking is that at a point where most bands or artists are well past their sell-by date, Damon & Naomi keep getting better and more interesting. Their basic sound of gently strummed guitars, melodic bass, innocent vocals, and arty lyrics has been the same since they were two-thirds of Galaxie 500, but each record has seen subtle changes in atmosphere and even some dramatic changes, like adding the guitar of Ghost’s Michio Kurihara (a collaboration that has been working beautifully since 2000′s Damon & Naomi with Ghost album). Within These Walls marks a significant change in sound from the duo. Ironically, given the title, it’s their first record that sounds like it was made outside the walls of their apartment. Thanks to the string and horn arrangements that add rich texture to the tracks, the sax and trumpet solos that add an occasional flourish, and of course, Kurihara’s amazing lyrical and lush guitar, the album has a larger-than-indie sound. Unlike many bands that opt for a wider-screen approach, the addition of extraneous elements doesn’t weaken the core strengths of the group. Instead it gives Damon & Naomi’s already impressive sound more dynamics and drama. A track like the Krukowski-sung “Defibrillation” is heartbreakingly honest and tense; add the strings and Kurihara’s swooping guitar lines, and it’s almost unbearable. Every track benefits from the expanded arrangements, and it also helps that the duo has written some very good songs: the title track is achingly beautiful and romantic sung in breathtakingly intimate fashion by Yang, “Stars Never Fade” is a midtempo near-rocker with a scorching Kunihara solo, “Cruel Queen” is a stark and eerie recasting of traditional folk ballad “The Trees They Do Grow High.” Elsewhere it’s easy to be charmed by “The Turnaround”‘s subtle vocal harmonies and lilting melody, the shimmering string arrangement on “Lilac Land,” the strutting horns on “On the Aventine,” or Yang’s splendid vocals throughout the album. Within These Walls ranks alongside Damon & Naomi’s best work (their time with Galaxie 500 included) and is proof of their formidable staying power both artistically and as a band. – Tim Sendra
Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang have slowly, steadily, stealthily made themselves into one of the most consistently interesting cultural juggernauts on the contemporary scene. As musicians, their work has been carefully progressing for two decades, and their new album, Within These Walls (20/20/20) is thus far, their masterpiece. Recorded with the help of brilliant electric guitarist Michio Kurihara, and arrangements by Bhob Rainey, Within These Walls has the feel of an early ’70s lost-folk classic, although it is only the mood and elements of the vocals that hearken back to that time. The session has a true lightness of spirit that makes the album a blast of pure joy. It’s a bravura performance, commended to everyone out there with ears. At the same time, D&N’s label, 20/20/20 has been involved in issuing some superb stuff-Kurihara’s Sunset Notes album and the first in a series of compilations, called International Sad Hits, which allows Damon to promote the blubbering of underground Sinatras in all known languages. The first volume was massive and we look forward to more. Also, extraordinary is the press the pair run, Exact Change. They have issued some amazing books over the years-check out their backlist for a real kick in the teeth-but none have been thoroughly fascinating as Joseph Cornell’s Dreams edited by Catherine Corman. The book draws from the journals of the America’s premier surrealist, and they are an exquisite addition to his canon. Naomi’s design work on this book (and the new CD, too) is particularly striking. Beautiful evocations of dream time in all its states. Congratulations all around. — Byron Coley and Thurston Moore
Sound Opinions (Chicago public radio with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot)
[plays Lilac Land]
Jim Derogatis: Those are the lush and lovely sounds of the duo known as Damon & Naomi . . . They have just released what I believe is their sixth studio album, Within These Walls. This is a really interesting duo. They run a publishing company, and they run their own indie label, and every year-and-a-half, two years, three years, they put out a really good record. I think Yo La Tengo gets all the attention for being the great husband-and-wife team of indie rock — Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, I love them, don’t get me wrong — but Damon & Naomi belong up there in the same realm, especially on the last couple of records where they have been collaborating with the great Japanese guitarist, Michio Kurihara, of the psychedelic rock band Ghost. He’s come in and added guitar to their gentle folk sounds. And they write beautiful songs, songs about relationships, songs about impressionistic views of the New England countryside, stuff that draws deep on poetry . . . OK, what’s different about this album? They’ve made it even a bigger sound, bringing in some saxophone, bringing in cello from some of the members of that band Espers, which is a big part of the freak-folk scene — well, Damon & Naomi touch on that, but they go deeper in a more old-fashioned way, something like Fairport Convention maybe, Incredible String Band…
[plays The Well]
Greg Kot: Jim you’re absolutely right, they are fleshing out their sound in a way that has not occurred before in their 15-year career. Their previous records all sounded like bedroom recordings — very intimate, but not particularly expansive. This record, with the brass, and with the string section, we’ve got them coming out into the world. It sounds like a chamber-pop record instead of a bedroom record. I love the sound on that particular song that we just played, “The Well”– I think the addition of Kurihara the guitarist has been huge for this band, and I love the way his guitar curls around Naomi Yang’s voice. It reminds me a lot of those really austere English folk records that Richard Thompson was doing with Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention…
Jim DeRogatis: Absolutely.
Greg Kot: . . . and I love love love love that sound.
Though already well-established as a duo, a few years ago these two ex-Galaxie 500 members hooked up with Japanese wunderkind guitarist Michio Kurihara, and have since been hard at work steadily refining their beautiful blend of winsome folk and slow motion psychedelics. Back again with Within These Walls, their second full-length for their own 20/20/20 imprint, Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang present some of their prettiest, most genteel ballads to date. With Kurihara in the saddle once more, and horn and string arrangements care of nmperign’s Bhob Rainey, the 10 songs gathered herein float by with gracious ease, draping gauzy melodies and ethereal vocals across languid rhythms and beautifully spare accompaniment. Tracks like “The Well” give Kurihara space to stretch out his electric guitars as a counterpoint to Yang’s beatific vocals, while “On the Aventine” finds Krukowski taking a turn at the mic to contrast against some nifty, loping horn lines. Barely breaking into a gallop with the shimmering “Stars Never Fade,” Damon & Naomi spend almost the whole of their latest record exploring the furthest reaches of their softest side, crafting their strongest and most memorable batch of tunes to date. — Michael Crumsho
Since 1992– when they were best known as the rhythm section for the much-loved Galaxie 500– Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang have occupied the kind of niche it’s hard to imagine many new indie bands falling into: They make modest, sleepy, intimate folk records, one every few years, around tours and collaborations and running a small label and small press. They’ve found a pleasant nook and they keep to it, commanding just enough respect and attention to remain comfortably unbothered. Within These Walls-- reviewed here belatedly, and with apologies– is the latest missive from that nook, and it’s a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around: It’s the best-sounding Damon & Naomi release in a while, but it’s also, somehow, less engaging than a lot of the duo’s back catalog, a string of records that weren’t hugely bothered with “engagement” in the first place.
The shift in sound is both gorgeous and timely. The current fashion in indie folk music, after all, is for the freak– something dark, mysterious, and shot through with psychedelics, as if made by hairy, acid-damaged people in forests at night. It’s a treat to hear these two shoot off in the opposite direction: Where previous records from them have been cozy to the point of small-room claustrophobia, this one is positively outdoorsy. The horns that murmur through “On the Aventine” conjure up open sky, either sun-filled or pleasantly gray; the production sparkles breezily, and makes you want to throw open your windows, take a short stroll. As background music, it’s unimpeachably beautiful, warm and understated. There’s a realism, space, and depth of field to the sound that’s a very welcome respite from the compressed, blaring way most things are produced these days; it suits the band perfectly.
The album is at its best when that sound combines with the work of longtime D&N collaborator Michio Kurihara, of the (more interesting) Japanese psych/folk group Ghost: His guitar leads, solos, and embellishments here are flat-out soaring. It’s that fact, unfortunately, that underlines what’s so problematic about Within These Walls. When Kurihara’s playing, the album veers into terrific instrumental music, with that guitar confidently occupying center stage, holding the reins firmly; but when either Damon or Naomi are singing, things falter. Sometimes it’s the lyrics, which read better on paper than they do on speakers; sometimes it’s the melodies, which lilt pleasantly but never worm their way very far into one’s head. But mostly, I suspect, it’s the limitations of those two voices, both of which are smooth, clear, sedate, and close-miced — tones that work well for fragile bedroom folk, but struggle to command the stage of these wide-open songs, especially when put up against the power of Kurihara’s guitar.
This is strange, since so many Damon & Naomi albums have come off the other way: decent albums some of us are more inclined to like because they feature the right personalities, two people in a nook we like to check in on. Within These Walls feels like the opposite: a very good record weighed down by two personalities who can’t quite command it– like seeing television stars look suddenly awkward and meek on a movie screen. Which is a shame, because when you’re not paying enough attention to this record to need a commanding center, it sounds absolutely marvelous. — Nitsuh Abebe
The phrase “headphones album” is overused by critics, almost always to describe music that is loaded with sounds. The inference is that you need headphones to hear all of the instruments, to truly “get” what is going on. Another kind of headphones album, though less often described as such, is an album that rewards patience. Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, Damon & Naomi, make those kinds of albums: slow and un-showy, rarely giving the listener simple, quickly grasped pleasures. Or at least these days they increasingly do. Their debut album, 1992′s More Sad Hits, contained more concise, spare versions of their previous band Galaxie 500′s swooning, hazy pop. Since then, Damon & Naomi’s music has continually broadened in sound and scope. The songs have stretched out, and so has their perspective. The duo’s 2000 collaboration with the Japanese group Ghost (With Ghost) cemented on record an international outlook already demonstrated by the duo’s world tours. World-traveling has made its mark on their music. On their own label 20/20/20 they have began a series of compilations of music from abroad that they’ve discovered while traveling (International Sad Hits). Their 2005 album The Earth Is Blue looked towards Brazil and Japan, adding to a lush, sensuous version of their melancholy songwriting.
As its title suggests, their sixth studio album Within These Walls looks not abroad but inward. Damon & Naomi themselves have described it as “ballads in a lonely mood”. Significantly, though, they continue to follow the path towards musical expansion and collaboration. They layer these sad ballads with elegant arrangements of horns and strings, often arranged by Bhob Rainey of nmperign. And they bring back Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara. His presence is almost a given nowadays with a Damon & Naomi release, after many live and studio collaborations. But it’s no less remarkable. In this album’s climate of patient intensity, his electric guitar cuts through the air in a striking, poetic way. The most explicit example is “Stars Never Fade”. The song has at first a calming mood, with Yang singing with stars in her eyes: “The world through your eyes looks so elegant.” But soon enough she begins to question how true this really can be, whether happiness is also just a game, a ruse, “trick photography”. And then Kurihara’s guitar rips into the song and lifts it upwards in a beautifully angry way. He does similar, if less dramatic, service to the rest of the album. Similar to how some film critics try to imagine an actor as the true auteur behind a body of film work, it’s easy to imagine someone hearing this as a Kurihara album. His guitar is the thread that runs through the entire affair, drawing out the emotions. It’s the Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the tragic human affairs acted out by the songs’ characters.
In a way the album is marked by restraint. The general tone is gentle and calm, but there’s always a sense that something much darker is not far away. In fact the lyrics put the darkness much closer; most of the songs’ narrators feel like bleak, total darkness is upon them. But musically the duo never gives in to emulating the absolute dark. Instead the album seems a continual balancing act between the heavy and the light, between deeply sad sounds and more hopeful ones. The album’s first song, “Lilac Land”, has a moment which musically exemplifies the restraint Damon & Naomi display in their approach. The song begins with Yang singing of inescapable heartbreak. At about the two-and-a-half-minute mark, there’s a moment of tense silence, where you’re sure everything is about to explode. But the music doesn’t explode, it just proceeds, all the more tense for it.
This aura of restraint is one reason Kurihara’s electric guitar makes such an impression, by continually poking a knife blade out from the shadows. Yang’s voice is especially placid and pretty throughout the album, as she and Krukowski each sing about heartbreak, loneliness, and the realization that the truth is cold and ugly. Their songs’ protagonists often seem to just barely be holding their heads above the waves, just staying afloat. In the title track, Yang sings of the temptation of saying goodbye once and for all to this “world too unkind”, and the wish for a deus ex machina, or at least a lover who cares: “when I hold my breath beneath the wave…come save me”.
For an album that musically emulates a moment of stillness preceding potential utter devastation, it manages a surprising amount of diversity. The strings, horns, and Kurihara’s guitar are part of this, as their appearances are carefully arranged to maximize the musical and emotional effect. But Within These Walls also includes enough musical passages that feel absolutely hopeful. The brighter passages lean against the bleakest ones, creating a balance that makes the album stronger. The album’s second song, “The Well”, is probably the loveliest Damon & Naomi song yet. It’s open and airy, with a striking melody that buoys the sense of hope inherent in the lyrics. Krukowski sings high backing vocals that sweetly balance with Yang’s voice as she takes the album’s recurring water metaphor in an optimistic direction, singing, “wide-open water can set you free.” And of course Kurihara’s guitar plays a key role in this as well, gliding gracefully. The song shines even brighter because of its appearance between tragedies.
The same happens at the album’s end, as another moment of hope is paired with something bitter. “The Turnaround” is a long-distance love song with a sense of starting over: “brushes dipped in fresh white paint / the turnaround / the change of key”. The next song, “Cruel Queen”, slaps it in the face, though. A distinctively creepy, yet somehow moving, update of the traditional folk ballad “The Trees They Do Grow High” brings the album to a brutal end. Damon & Naomi’s version gives the song a fresh strangeness while retaining the feeling that it’s an old tale, and that human manipulation of hearts is an ancient game. It caps off the album with the impression that Within These Walls’s perspective stretches far beyond the walls of any one room, after all. Heartbreak is universal. – Dave Heaton
Life beyond Galaxie 500: The enduring beauty of Damon and Naomi
Over two decades — first as the rhythm section of Galaxie 500 and then on a series low-key studio albums — Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang have mastered the art of intimacy. But on Damon and Naomi’s sixth studio release, Within These Walls (20/20/20), the couple pulls off a neater trick. If any album can be said to sound “quietly bold,” this is it.
The guitarist Michio Kurihara, a full-time member of the Japanese psychedelic band Ghost, has been partnering with the couple for several years, and his playing is more integral to the Damon and Naomi sound than ever. Kurihara’s solo punctuates “Stars Never Fade” with the kind of ferocity rarely heard on the group’s previous albums. And when his guitar curls around Yang’s beautifully deadpan voice on “The Well,” they evoke the plangent interplay of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson in the iconic folk-rock band Fairport Convention.
The arrangements are also fleshed out by strings and horns, which at their best help the couple’s somewhat plain voices underline the complex emotions in their lyrics. But occasionally the soprano saxophone comes off as a sugary jazz-lite distraction — surprising, given that the musician in question is the normally reliable Bhob Rainey.
But that quibble aside, Within These Walls does a good job of escorting one of rock’s most self-effacing couples out of the shadows and into a more brightly lit space, where their exquisite songs can be more properly appreciated. – Greg Kot
New album from Damon & Naomi, still one of the last beacons of classic song-craft left with a parallel connection to left-field sound. This one features contributions from guitarist Michio Kurihara (Ghost/White Heaven/Ai Aso et al), Bhob Rainey of Nmperign and Helena Espvall of Espers. There is a sustained lonesome mood to the entire album that references the kind of cigarette box apocalypse style of Leonard Cohen as well as the elegiac folk-rock modes of Sandy Denny and the songwriting is as literate as it is inspired with some of the duo’s most affecting compositions snuggled up in weeping strings and batteries of psychedelic guitar. — David Keenan
For Within These Walls Damon & Naomi have recruited a stellar troupe of musicians including Ghost’s Michio Kurihara, Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley and Espers cellist Helena Espvall. The album is a collection of ballads, which thanks to the contributing musicians is supported by an incredibly rich backdrop of sounds, from Kurihara’s superior lead guitar passages to Rainey’s delicate horn and string arrangements there’s a great deal of ear candy to absorb. Just check the instrumental break towards the end of the title track for an example of how powerful this can all sound – especially the gorgeous E-bowed guitar passage. Further highlights come from the ragtime vibes of ‘Red Flower’ and the spooky folk of ‘Cruel Queen’, but really, the whole album floats by in one long, luxuriously hazy sonic plume. Very, very lovely.
Tiny Mix Tapes
Michio Kurihara may be the world’s most adept collaborator. The now nearly legendary Ghost guitar player recently lent his skills to fellow collab-holics Boris, helping to bring forth the magnificent Rainbow. With Within These Walls, Kurihara returns, contributing even more mind-bending guitars to a resolutely solid Damon & Naomi album. After four releases with the duo, one wonders whether they’ll ever officially ask him to join the band. (Alas, Damon & Naomi & Michio is kind of a mouthful.)
Honestly, it’s hard to write something new about Damon & Naomi. They resurface every few years with a similarly gorgeous collection of quiet, ethereal, and introspective songs. Like their erstwhile (just how many years “erstwhile” makes me feel old) Galaxie 500 bandmate Dean Wareham’s Luna, their albums are consistently good but always bear strong resemblances to the band’s back catalog. And while constantly-evolving bands like Animal Collective and, well, Boris, are more captivating even in their missteps, there is something comforting about consistency.
Naomi Yang is as compelling as ever. Her voice is imbued with a confident, dramatic, storytelling quality rare in contemporary singers. She is deliberate; her pauses are as expressive as her singing. On “The Well,” which admittedly suffers from the kind of shallow lyrics that chip away at Damon & Naomi’s aural perfection, she sounds like a country chanteuse, her voice wrapping around twangy instrumentals. The album closes with “Cruel Queen,” a dreamy reimagining of the traditional song “The Trees They Do Grow High,” and Naomi effectively channels a less bizarre Joanna Newsom.
What separates Within These Walls from the anonymous abyss of dream-pop is Kurihara. His plaintive but distorted, perfectly picked guitar enlivens the otherwise tranquil “Defibrilation,” just like the firing neurons and electrical currents that form the song’s central metaphors. On the next track, “Stars Never Fade,” it provides sharpness and pathos to a remarkably un-clichéd critique of apparent transcendence.
Within These Walls isn’t the kind of album that commands obsessive, repeated plays upon initial discovery. It will, however, stick around for those rainy afternoons that necessitate a book, a cup of tea, and a warm, expansive sonic backdrop, when you don’t quite know whether you’re feeling comfortable or sad. – Judy Ain’t No Punk
The Boston Globe
Damon & Naomi have certainly made no secret of their love of Tim Buckley, going so far as to name their 2002 live album “Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian” after his most famous song. But Within These Walls, the duo’s seventh album, inches ever closer in the direction of the jazz-folk swell and disconnected slowness of the late troubadour. The opening “Lilac Land” is as cold and watery (and forbidding) as a deep lake, sounding as though the instruments are just out of reach of one another but keep trying to make contact. The horns on “The Well,” “On the Aventine” and others, meanwhile, take the crisp cool of 1960s Burt Bacharach and turn it upside down, while guitarist Michio Kurihara offers lyrical leads both fragile (“The Well”) and aggressive (“Stars Never Fade”). But even though there’s a soothing calmness to the sounds themselves, it’s hard not to feel that with the exception of “Cruel Queen,” the songs hit their marks and simply stay there. On Within These Walls, what you hear seems to be all there is. — Marc Hirsh
It’s been nearly two decades since the demise of college rock favorites Galaxie 500, and while the future of that band’s rhythm section (Naomi Yang on bass and Damon Krukowski on drums) seemed unsure after it, the duo soldiered on and created quite a catalog on their own. On Within These Walls, Damon & Naomi’s first record since 2005, inspiration was found in an unlikely source: Frank Sinatra. Like Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, they look inward and examine both the pain and beauty of life with songs enveloped in an exquisite backdrop of lightly strummed acoustic guitars, brushed drums, horns and strings. The opener, “Lilac Land,”is a bit of a snoozer, but things liven up on the breezy “On the Aventine” and the gentle, Naomi-sung “Red Flower.” The few dull missteps here can be excused, as the high points seem quite divinely inspired. – Tim Hinely
Damon & Naomi never aspire to be the life of the party. Ever since their formative years as members of that perennial shoegazing outfit, Galaxie 500, they’ve purveyed a perennially downcast demeanor, an aching and a longing that’s sad yet sublime. Seven albums on, the mood remains decidedly lethargic and indeed, Within These Walls may be their most meditative opus yet. A series of sprawling soundscapes etched with quiet contemplation, it inches along at a snail’s pace. Yet, there’s a shimmering, incandescent beauty that radiates from these languid ruminations, even if the precious attitude occasionally wears thin. Consequently, those with the patience to navigate this tearstained terrain will stumble upon unexpected rewards, particularly the dewy-eyed folk of “Cruel Queen” and “Debfibrillation” and the yearning caress of “Red Flower,” a dramatic soliloquy that could possibly find a second life as the show-stopping centerpiece of an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. The ethereal hush of “Lilac Land” and the wistful drift of the title track and “The Turnaround” also boast a beauty all their own. Overall however, the tenuous, elusive melodies offer fleeting pleasures at best, suggesting for all its hypnotic prowess, Within These Walls shelters a lot of lonely space. – Lee Zimmerman
SF Bay Guardian
It’s been nearly two decades since Galaxie 500 broke through with their languid, fuzzed-out dream pop, and rhythm section Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang still live and record in the Ivy Leagued shadow of their Cambridge, Mass., alma mater, Harvard University. Perpetual college rock? It’s true their recordings as a duo have retained Galaxie 500′s moody overtones, but the self-consciously wide-screen canvas is gone: instead of soaring chorus and spiral-jetty guitar wails, Damon & Naomi emphasize smart pop arrangements and subdued vocal harmonies. Their latest, Within These Walls (20/20/20), is one of the coziest albums of the year, not just for its rainy-day production but also for the impression that the pair is totally comfortable in their bittersweet pop.
When I ask the two by e-mail why they are continually drawn to downbeat melodies, Yang replies that it’s “the most melancholy records in our collection that get the most play – in some ways I think that you need to really appreciate the melancholy, the fleeting, to appreciate happiness.”
For a project summoning such constancy, Damon & Naomi barely got off the ground running as a duo. Surprised by Dean Wareham’s stormy departure from Galaxie 500, the pair released a modest EP of songs under the name Pierre Etoile, but distribution problems waylaid the project. Burned twice in quick succession, Damon and Naomi rededicated their creative energies to Exact Change, a small press with an emphasis on reprinting experimental literature and writing by avant-garde composers and artists. Galaxie 500 producer Kramer hooked the duo for a one-off return to music, 1992′s More Sad Hits (Shimmy Disc), and five studio albums later, they’re still treading water in the afterglow.
Krukowski once remarked in an interview with the Wire that Galaxie 500 was drawn to imitate the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third record and Big Star’s Third (Rykodisc, 1978) for “the sound of a band after it’s been a rock band.” Damon & Naomi are, of course, this concept’s incarnation: a band risen up from the rhythm section of a much-heralded breakthrough act, whose first full-length together was designed as a farewell.
All of their successive albums work within the narrow wall of this hushed grace, but the pair can hardly be accused of resting on Galaxie 500′s laurels. Besides running Exact Change and backing up Kate Biggar and Wayne Rogers (currently of Major Stars) on their Magic Hour project, the duo has worked extensively with Japanese psych rockers Ghost, especially with virtuoso guitarist Michio Kurihara, who has added his tasteful accompaniment to their last several albums and tours (that rare combination of genius and tastefulness, Kurihara will play with both Damon and Naomi and headliners Boris for their upcoming San Francisco date).
Damon & Naomi’s preferred status among next-wave elites like the Wire might seem surprising until you realize they were pretty well ahead of the curve in cultivating a pastoral, psych-tinged folkie sound (on prime display on “Cruel Queen,” the Yang-fronted ballad that closes Within These Walls). Indeed, for how much they’ve towed the line of subdued folk pop, there’s never been any doubting the group’s interesting tastes: during our e-mail chat, Krukowski name-checks Robert Wyatt, Fairport Convention, Scott Walker, and Fotheringay as influences.
That said, the pair are never showy in their pop know-how. Indeed, the best moments on Within These Walls then aren’t about blowing minds so much as hitting the right stride. – Max Goldberg
Dream Magazine #8
With the ten tracks that comprise Within These Walls Damon & Naomi have produced the most consistently excellent and bittersweetly melancholic album of their career. They’ve been making music together now for two decades, (though that seems hard to believe) and this is their most lushly crafted and musically adventurous work to date. Soprano sax from Bhob Rainey weaves itself amidst other horn players, Helena Espvall’s cello, and the strings of Margie Wienk and Katt Hernandez, along with the exultant but extremely discreet electric guitar genius of Michio Kurihara all conspiring to support and frame the instrumentation and distinctive vocals of Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang. It’s a lonely sadly beautiful journey through the borderlands between life and death, love and hate, hope and annihilation, tenderness and great sorrow. But there’s a warm core to it all; an abiding spirit, that feels resolute and quietly heroic despite the deep and dark undertow. The title song gives articulate voice to the voiceless prisoners crying out for some measure of justice from a political regime gone blind and insane. “The Well” feels like a sublime cross between early Fairport Convention and Gene Clark. On the Aventine has the kind of hooks and mellow soul jazz structure that used to fire Van Morrison into a dreamy extemporaneous groove. “Defibrillation” brings to mind Jeff Buckley fronting American Music Club while Kurihara recalls Cipolinna. “The Turnaround” offers a glimpse of hope and possibility. All in all a very fitting piece of work for one of the darkest times in U.S. history. – George Parsons
Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang’s influence on the American indie scene may not be a subject that crosses the lips of anyone other than hyperbolic, intensely obsessed music writers, but remains undeniable all the same. As the rhythm section of the highly original and far-reaching Galaxie 500, the pair’s thoughtful, deliberate structure lent stability to the shaky, desperate tone and guitar of band frontman Dean Wareham.
Since that band’s demise in 1991, Krukowski and Yang have performed under a few different monikers (Magic Hour, Pierre Etoile and Damon & Naomi) and with a few other people while simultaneously pursuing the foundation of their book publishing company Exact Change. They’ve also found time to focus on Krukowski’s creative writing and Yang’s visual art. In short, they’ve spent way more time outside of Galaxie 500 than they did within it. And in this time, Damon & Naomi have forged a unique identity such that for folks to refer to them automatically as “ex-Galaxie 500,” while not incorrect technically, seems needlessly nostalgic.
Touring behind their newest album, Within These Walls, which the pair released via their own 20/20/20 Records imprint, Damon & Naomi are joined onstage by Japanese guitar master Michio Kurihara. The pair first met Kurihara after befriending Japanese band Ghost in the late 1990s. Known not only for his manual dexterity, but also his almost preternatural musical instincts, Kurihara plays electric guitar on Within These Walls, his third recorded collaboration with Damon & Naomi. Kurihara will also perform at the 40 Watt with the band Boris, which shares the bill that night.
The paring of the truly massive-sounding Japanese band Boris with the delicate, introspective music of Damon & Naomi seems, at first, an incongruent bill that would split an audience. “There have only been two shows so far,” says Krukowski. “At the Wire festival, it seemed to make sense to the crowd. Tonight [Tuesday, Oct. 2], at an all-ages show in Philly, in a sweaty basement club, maybe less so… But it makes sense to the bands.” It makes sense because, artistically speaking, both Boris and Damon & Naomi seek the same things – both push beyond what they’ve done before and both are endlessly curious about what can be created within their musical realms.
Still, how does such a bill even happen? Krukowski says it was a pretty simple affair. He explains, “We met Boris when they came through Boston on tour. Kurihara was at our house recording basic tracks for the album, and asked if we wanted to go see them. Afterwards, they told us that they listened to [Damon & Naomi's 2005 album] The Earth Is Blue in the van every day because it was their daughter’s favorite! Atsuo, the drummer, suggested that we tour together. We were charmed, but thought he was joking. Later, Kurihara said to us, that was no joke, they really want to do this.”
Although through seven albums and 16 years, Damon & Naomi have dug deep, both lyrically and musically, to deliver an intensely heartfelt music, the tunes on Within These Walls are so emotionally bare, so close-to-the-bone, that it’s easy to feel duty-bound to spend time alone with it. Tracks such as “The Well” (“I never learned to turn my boat / Into the waves to survive / I let the cruel, cruel water just rise and rise”) and “Cruel Queen” (“Mother, dear mother / I only want your blessing”) imply that the songs on the album were culled from deep personal experiences.
Krukowski simply says, “We wanted this record to be honest, above all.” Which is, actually, a perfect answer. It’s unnecessary for Krukowski to elaborate because the music speaks so well for itself. The intensity of Damon & Naomi, through tender, quiet songs of a deeply personal nature, easily matches the visceral intensity of being blown away by Boris. This bill is – if it can really be nailed down and defined – a bill for music fans. That is, not just those who enjoy a good tune played by a competent band, but, rather, those who can recognize the interconnectivity of seemingly disparate musical styles, and that the surface differences are, in many ways, merely cosmetic. However, you don’t need to consider yourself a deep thinker on the subject to simply enjoy the music. If you just want to listen and take it all in, then that’s a legitimate and honest pursuit. After all, as Krukowski put it, the point is honesty, above all. – Gordon Lamb