Classic Album Review: Galaxie 500 – On Fire [1989, Rough Trade]


I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes musical perfection lately, due in part to our May podcast questioning different writers’ rating conventions.

I have a great deal of difficulty explaining why I love the things I really love. More articulate people take the approach of exploring the minutiae, blow by blow of why they love something. I take the opposite caveman approach of bludgeoning everyone over the head with the fact that something is great. Why I think it’s great doesn’t seem so important. Over the course of about six years, I have attempted on several different occasions to write my definitive be all and end all review of Say Anything, which I can safely say is probably my favourite movie of all time (with Running on Empty a close second, and as I am writing this I’m having the revelation of a lot of good shit being churned out of 1988 and 1989), to no avail. Maybe I’m afraid of manhandling it to the point where I kill it with love. Kind of like if you petted a rabbit to death or something. Think Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

So in thinking about some of the most perfect albums that have ever been recorded, Galaxie 500‘s On Fire naturally came to mind. On Fire is about as dark and emotionally wrought as anything else I love, and there are lots of reasons why I know it wouldn’t appeal to most people I know. Some people might think Dean Wareham’s voice sounds an awful lot likeAdam Sandler‘s, that they are a sparsely arranged three-person show, and that they are the remnants of the ashes of college radio, for many the precursor of dreaded “indie” music. Yet, there are a handful of reasons why, for better or for worse, I think this is one of the best albums of all time. Some things are always universally agreed upon as being great, but for one reason or another I don’t bond with them. I don’t mate with the album, and I can’t imagine being attracted to the band. There are others that don’t seem as praised without exception, but that I fall for in a hard way. I think this is the phenomenon of what a “cult” hit is.  It’s really about a connection, achieving meaningful intimacy with a creation.

In a lot of ways, On Fire reminds me of movies like Last Picture Show, where every protagonist is always trying to figure out a way to run away from life by using a car. You would think that to someone who despises driving (and would be a candidate for Canada’s Worst Driver), a song like Blue Thunder wouldn’t resonate so deeply. You’d be wrong to think so though, because Blue Thunder always hits my pangs of irresponsibility in a big way. The more I acquire commitments, the more I can imagine driving away from them someday. To me, Blue Thunder is all about leaving things behind as a release.

Strange is just as good, and ties for top track in the On Fire story. In terms of lyrical song narrative it probably sounds like something a high teenager might churn out. “Why’s everybody actin funny? / Why’s everybody look so strange? / Why’s everybody look so pretty? / What do I want with all these things? / I went alone down to the drugstore / I went in back and took a Coke / I stood in line and ate my Twinkies / I stood in line, I had to wait” isn’t exactly the sort of stuff Nobel Prizes in Literature are made of. But somehow, this odd little ditty is one of the most beautiful releases I have ever heard. And by the way, drummer Damon Krukowski probably would’ve used the kit he bought from Conan O’Brien when they were all attending Harvard together. For something with arguably downright stupid lyrics, that is pretty incredible.

Another Day features Naomi Yang taking over vocal duties in what is essentially a gentle face slapping to someone complaining about being sad. Everyday is not the same indeed. The arrangements these guys concocted could accompany asininity like Cotton-Eyed Joe or Barbie Girl and it would still sound like a full-on tear-rimming orchestra.  When Will You Come Home? has a guitar solo that slays to the umpteenth degree, and you can’t help but think they have kicked the Velvet Underground‘s ass at this point, a band they were nauseatingly compared to during their heyday.

Before I wrap this up, I want to talk about one last song. Their cover of Ceremony is, quite possibly, my favourite of all time. Dean Wareham always had a knack for excellent covers (their version of George Harrison’s Isn’t It A Pity and later, with Luna Paula Abdul’s Straight Up) that dislodged the originals to the point of evaporation for me. The bit they incorporated with the tambourine firmly establishes them as the most soulful white band to walk the planet of the earth.

Fin.

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Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music

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