Galaxie 500
Between 1988 and 1990, Galaxie 500 made three beautiful albums awash in spacey, psychedelic pop. Then, for five years, after singer/guitarist Dean Wareham ditched the rhythm section (for Luna) and Galaxie's label, Rough Trade, went bankrupt in 1991, no one could buy their records. But in the mixed-up music world, where obscurity effects obsessive-compulsive fan behavior, the five-year lapse did wonders for the band, elevating Galaxie to near-mythic status in the annals of indie rock.

Leave it to Rykodisc to test a cult built on scarcity: A new box set includes all three of Galaxie's records, now peppered with B-sides, and dishes a fourth compilation CD with demos, live tracks, and studio outtakes. Now as much as then, these are intensely private records that don't get played before a room full of people unless it's very, very late and everyone is slushing toward bed.

Galaxie lifted Lou Reed's patent on bleeding simple chord progressions for maximum dramatic effect. What could have been rote rehash became magic when the group recorded with Shimmy Disc's “pseudo-legendary” producer Kramer, who wrapped the songs in a thick blanket and sank them in a warm bath. Meanwhile, Wareham's whiny vocals reverberated like he was singing into a concrete pipe with one end in New England and the other in orbit.

Today, the group's first full-length, is the real opus here. A cover of Jonathan Richman's “Don't Let Our Youth Go to Waste” sets the tone for the entire record: almost innocent love songs presented atop a psychedelic drone. On Fire, critically regarded as Galaxie's best disc, is more mature with Wareham cleaning up his lead guitar and Naomi Yang coming into her own with somnambulant bass lines.

This Is Our Music, a title ironically stolen from Ornette Coleman's 1961 release, begins with one of Wareham's great non sequiturs on “Fourth of July” (“I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit/ Your dog refused to look at it/ So I got drunk and looked at the Empire State Building/ It was no bigger than a nickel”), spotlighting the trio at its best with deliberate melodies and polished tunesmithing.

Like any hodgepodge of cast-away demos and misfit recordings, the fourth disc, Uncollected Galaxie 500, is a scattered work. But gems like “Blue Thunder (w/ sax)” and the Young Marble Giants' “Final Day” soar high enough to overshadow the weaker stuff (like the dumb “Walking Song” and the boring “Jerome”).

Now that anyone can pop into a record store and “ride the fiery breeze of Galaxie 500” (as Kramer once said), the band is sure to lose a few fickle rhapsodists, but this box set proves that the mythic status built by five years of unavailability was rooted in three solid records, not the fact that no one else could listen to them.

— Jeff Stark

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

The chilling title of From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah calls up grimy, hopeless images — not just the news photos of Aberdeen, Wash., one saw everywhere in April of 1994, but the “underneath the bridge” setting of Nirvana's loneliest song, “Something in the Way.” In that nearly silent lament, tacked on to the end of Nevermind's pagan stomp, the singer crouches below a leaking excuse for civil engineering, huddled with the animals he's trapped, his only friends. Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore, after visiting the underbelly of the same bridge, mourned, “It seems horrible that this was the kindest sanctuary a boy could find on a winter night in his own hometown.”

You won't find “Something in the Way” or anything like it here. These songs, recorded on the road between '89 and '93, are called “live” for a reason. Some of us have spent so much time of late mulling over the way Kurt Cobain delivered the word “denial” that we've forgotten he was pretty good at wielding just plain “yeah.” There are yeahs crawling all over the place on Wishkah: on “Lithium” 's unnerving call for will, on the version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (which moved me so much when I heard it broadcast last year I considered destroying the radio, as the medium would never offer a finer message). These yeahs are group statements, reminders of why the best bands are always better than the best soloists. Krist Novoselic never sounded so there, and what can be said about Dave Grohl's drumming except, “Come back!” If the band's posthumous Unplugged in New York was its acoustic death rattle, Wishkah documents the noisiest, gutsiest growing pains in the world. This story is narrated by electricity itself. You get the sense that for a few short, astonishing years, rock 'n' roll became Kurt Cobain's hometown, and ours.

— Sarah Vowell

Various Artists
The Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

This rebarbative and flaccid two-CD affair commits to aluminum plating the pomp and misery of the title event, held in Cleveland last Labor Day. Most depressingly, it preserves the dissonant and unrepresentative lineup of the show, which through a combination of inappropriate chauvinism and lame-ass booking remolded the history of the music it purported to celebrate into a frat-boy-dominated and overwhelmingly American endeavor. Few who saw the concert will forget its affronts: Jon Bon Jovi, one eye on his TelePrompTer, urging the crowd to sing along to “Imagine.” The grinning, small-brained Sheryl Crow whimpering out a pair of Stones tunes and then unaccountably serving as a utility infielder, sitting in with the Allmans, Robbie Robertson, and Martha and the Vandellas. Natalie Merchant being there at all. (Hint: Her manager, Jon Landau, has another important client named Bruce.)

The recording takes the concert's few interesting moments and buries them: Melissa Etheridge's “Be My Baby” will have you swooning, but her two other tracks are airy and forgettable. John Fogerty, backed by the adamantine Booker T & the MG's, pounds though “Fortunate Son,” but the song's once-proud outsiderism sounds resentful in this context. Other performances create meanings their conceivers could not have wanted: Jackson Browne's trivializing take on Bob Marley's “Redemption Song” stands in for 40 years of appropriation of black music by white rockers. Native Ohioan Chrissie Hynde's malevolent performance of “My City Was Gone,” cheered by the hometown crowd, provides a ringing reminder of the vapid, ovine behavior of the average rock audience. The rock establishment, as gathered together here, is now as hateful and self-satisfied as any of the institutions the music's seminal performers grew up despising. During the opening-day festivities, Yoko Ono averred that John Lennon would definitely have been there. She may even have been right, but the thought of his ghoulish, careerless widow crowing it created in me a sharp desire to break something.

— Bill Wyman

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