Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Damon & Naomi: The Sub Pop Years

everyone cool is going to spectrumculture.com. they told me so.

The Sub Pop Years will try the patience of even the most enthusiastic and sympathetic Damon & Naomi fan. At 15 tracks and over 70 minutes, it paradoxically showcases everything great about the duo's blend of understated arrangements and hazy atmospherics, while also exposing the group's tendency to hit on a formula and repeat it well past the point of decency. The result is a steady, if largely underwhelming and predictable compilation that serves as a passable introduction to the duo for the uninitiated but offers nothing for long-time fans wanting to view the duo's body of work from a new perspective.

At its best, The Sub Pop Years confirms that Damon & Naomi's greatest strength has always been their ability to craft melodies, accentuating them with layered instrumental accents and ethereal vocals. Drawing from material from the band's four Sub Pop efforts - The Wondrous World of Damon & Naomi, Playback Singers, Damon & Naomi with Ghost and Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian - nearly every song is expertly arranged and executed. The best tracks here - "Forgot to Get High," "In the Sun" and "How Long" - unfold deliberately, maintaining their dreamy dispositions without resorting to needless embellishments or clutter. This compilation is at least a reminder that the two are masters of utilizing music to create moods and convey tones.

Despite these charms, the release is ultimately a disappointment that's plagued with many of the shortcomings that listeners have come to expect from such compilations. The band's first (and some would argue, most consistent) post-Galaxie 500 effort, More Sad Hits, is excluded, as it was released prior to the band joining the Sub Pop stable. The result is an incomplete overview: neophytes looking for a good starting point will miss one key piece of the puzzle, while long-time fans will likewise have little incentive to purchase the album, as there are no outtakes, b-sides, alternate versions or even botched cover songs to whet such appetites.

The track order is equally perplexing and doesn't appear to follow any appreciable or recognizable pattern, with the songs sequenced randomly. Though the duo will never be accused of experimenting wildly with new styles - in hindsight, the overdubs and other embellishments of with Ghost weren't a dramatic departure for the band - they have made some minimal stylistic changes throughout the years, and a chronological running order might have made this evolution, however slight, more apparent.

There's also plenty to quibble about regarding the songs chosen: nine of the 15 tracks are drawn from with Ghost and Siren, which haven't aged particularly well and still border on being tediously monotonous. Most of the selections are cut from a very similar cloth - falsetto vocals, gentle arrangements, simple and inoffensive flourishes - and quickly become repetitive. Ultimately, The Sub Pop Years reaffirms that Damon & Naomi have always been best served in small doses. Though the duo hasn't exactly remained musically static since Galaxie 500 disbanded, such shifts have been via small, careful steps and not giant leaps. Such an approach is reliable and safe but makes for an unsurprising and mostly inessential retrospective. With nothing new included on this release - surely there's some worthy material in a vault somewhere - and a heavy emphasis on the band's less enthralling records, casual fans will get only part of the story, while lifers will have already heard it all before.

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