The cover of Damon & Naomi: The Sub Pop Years is framed like a Polaroid, and the image itself — a bluish superimposition of Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang — reads like an unfinished double exposure on old film, the pair caught mid bloom.
FOREGROUNDING: “You listen to these records,” says Damon of The Sub Pop Years, “and it’s sort of like us coming out of the mist.”
Regardless of what was intended, the shot is a fitting expression of what this collection — far more than a bouquet of hits — documents. Those Sub Pop years (1995–2002) weren’t merely an arc of recovery period from the nasty 1991 break-up of Galaxie 500 — they also witnessed a prolonged foregrounding of the two. You don’t get much farther back on the proverbial stage than the rhythm section of a dream-pop act, so their gradual inching to the forefront of their music — as well as the way it just keeps getting more beautiful, more erudite, and more luminous — was no short journey.
“It was a long transition from being at the back to coming to the front — and for that to be okay,” laughs Yang. “We were very reluctant to stop being a rhythm section. When we first started playing as a duo, I remember feeling like, ‘Sorry! Just ignore us! We’ll be done soon!’ ”
“You listen to these records,” adds Krukowski, “and it’s sort of like us coming out of the mist.”
He could mean that in a few ways. After the split with Dean Wareham, the two just “stopped — stopped trying to be in a band, and stopped hanging out with other bands,” according to the liner notes of More Sad Hits — an album produced (and mixed) in 1992 by their right-hand svengali, Mark Kramer, and originally released on his Shimmy Disc label. If releasing an album seems like a strange way to stop being a band, think of More Sad Hits as a flushing of the gutters (only far prettier than that image suggests). The sounds were largely Galaxie-inspired, the content was largely Galaxie-concerned, the tone, the recording, the songwriting — it all swirled into a kind of mist that obscured them with unwitting nostalgia. If anything, the comp finds them reinterpreting this uncertainty into something more promising, like possibility.
“It was daunting to go back to those records,” Krukowski says of the four Sub Pop releases from which they culled this collection. “The process became this interesting encounter with what our songs were about.”
The other mist in question might simply be sonic. Three years after More Sad Hits, Damon & Naomi debuted on Sub Pop with The Wondrous World Of . . . — another Kramer production, and a rather tense one (since he had just kicked the weed). That record had them performing as a duo for the first time — an experience that made them a bit more protective of their budding ideas. The following albums — right up to their most recent effort, 2007’s Within These Walls (20|20|20) — have been recorded in their Cambridge apartment, with ever increasing fidelity. The 1998 Playback Singers was an eight-track bedroom affair. Their 2000 collaboration Damon & Naomi with Ghost was a 16-track hootenanny, as they hosted the Japanese group through the sessions. They’ve since worked with a seriously unshabby 24-track home studio — and, it would seem, very understanding neighbors.
The release of the compilation coincides with 1001 Nights (Factory 25), a DVD that collects tour diaries filmed and edited by Yang over the course of their European and Japanese tours with Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara, a pair of live performances in Tokyo, and three stunningly minimal short films by filmmaker Cedrick Eymenier set to Damon & Naomi songs. The collection of Sub Pop releases allows us to hear the two getting comfortable with themselves: Krukowski’s pining high vocal trails riding confident atop thick acoustic chords; Yang’s ghostly campfire croon gliding in and out of focus against her harmonium; Kurihara’s guitar lines coursing through the songs like a bloodstream. But the film lets us witness it all happening.
“Those were the moments that we started to feel good about playing,” Krukowski recalls of the tours. And when he describes their travels in Japan as an immersion course, he’s not talking about just language. The past few years have been an immersion course in themselves — a relearning of everything they had, for a moment, entertained forgetting.
“We had let the whole band concept go before we started doing this again,” he says. “So the big question was ‘Why? Why do it?’ ”
The Sub Pop Years provides as clear and ringing an answer as we’re likely to get. The two have never sounded better than they do right now — or, more to the point, than they will Friday at the Cambridge YMCA. And as always, the present is the moment they attend to. If we’re lucky, theirs is a picture that will never finish developing.
DAMON & NAOMI + A HAWK AND A HACKSAW | Cambridge Family YMCA, 820 Mass Ave, Cambridge | September 18 at 8 pm | $15 | 617.876.4275 or www.worldmusic.org