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Blue Crush

Psych-Pop Veterans Damon and Naomi Return With a New Album to Make the Earth Stand Still

ACID IS GROOVY: Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang further refine their ethereal sound on The Earth is Blue, their first studio album in five years.

By Holly Jefferson Parsons | Posted 3/23/2005

As two thirds of critically adored trio Galaxie 500, Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski were heckled, had things thrown at them, couldn’t get booked on Saturday night, and couldn’t fill a club. As half of the short-lived psych-rock quartet Magic Hour, they overheard a concertgoer lament, “Everyone in that band should be killed.” And as the neo-folk slowcore duo Damon and Naomi, well, they were heckled just weeks ago. Every band has been there. After all this time, the two still struggle to find the right audience. And on this February Tuesday night, their home base, Cambridge, Mass., is the best place to be.

It’s the record release party for the slow-burning The Earth Is Blue, just out on their label 20/20/20 and recorded in their Cambridge home. The venue: a hipster bistro close to said home. The reception: warm, at capacity, and getting louder and chattier by the minute. Could it have been the free-flowing caipirinhas, Brazil’s drink of choice, remixed to be blue instead of the typical greeny yellow? Blue? Got it. The Earth Is Blue.

Yang hangs in the back with whiskey, neat, instead and blends in with the cool-looking crowd, sporting a sleek black bob and a racer-striped Le Tigre trainer jacket. “I like how it looks with everyone holding the same blue drink,” she says, taking in the view. The background music completes the Latin vibe. Also in the house: Malcolm Mooney, the original frontman for the legendary Krautrock band Can, Mission of Burma’s Roger Miller, and a slew of local journalists.

About 45 minutes into this good-time scene, the lights and music dims, and husband-and-wife Yang (bass, keyboards, vocals) and Krukowski (drums, acoustic guitars, vocals) finish signing autographs and make their way to the stage. “Welcome, come on in, grab a blue drink,” Krukowski, a pale man with hair shorn and sandy, says, smiling to a latecomer, before introducing the rest of the band, Boston free-improvisers Greg Kelley (trumpet) and Bhob Rainey (soprano sax). The horns “lend harmonic class to the act,” Krukowski says, and an unexpected exotic warmth to D&N’s usually subdued sound. The duo owns this sound with distinction, and their music fills the small space with an inviting coziness on the warmest night of winter yet.

The pair still feel the buzz from the night before when meeting for minted tea and Turkish coffee at a Harvard Square hot spot. The conversation leads to their love of performing cover songs, a trademark move for the duo; of Blue’s 10 tracks, one is a sultry, understated version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; another is a brass-shaded take on Caetano Veloso’s “Araça Azul.”

“They’re fun,” Yang says. “We do songs that we wish we had written. For us there has to be something in the song that you want to learn, something that’s intriguing. If it’s just something that you want to sing, like karaoke, then it’s kind of hard to reinterpret it, and it sounds like karaoke.”

The album is Damon and Naomi’s first studio release in five years. “The truth is it didn’t seem that long to us, and once we announced the record for release, it was quickly pointed out how long it’s been,” Krukowski says. “It’s kind of surprising to hear it’s been that [long].” Between then and now they released a live album and DVD “that represented a tremendous amount of work and all the touring behind that,” Yang says. “We enjoy taking our time, but we weren’t resting, weren’t, like, on vacation.”

Musically, Blue continues the duo’s exploration of the dreamy psychedelia featured in earlier recordings and verges on pop, while still injecting their trademark bedtime grooves, jangling guitars, and breathy, ethereal vocals that are always more pretty than powerful. Haunting harmonies and detailed melodic lines dominate throughout. Their semiofficial and not-so-silent third member, Michio Kurihara, guitarist for the Japanese psych-folk band Ghost, layers fuzz-fueled guitars. Rarely has melancholia sounded so inviting.

Just don’t call it indie rock or folk, as some reviews claim. “We like acid folk,” Yang says. “That’s a category in Japanese record stores that always has very interesting records. I think the folk title alone can be very misleading and sounds kid of preachy, or like you’re going to faint or something.” Krukowski says The Wire, a British music magazine, calls it “new, weird America.” Japanese record stores probably have that section, too.

While most musicians dream of a home studio, Yang and Krukowski’s studio has taken over their home. “We used to have a smaller, more portable studio, and we were like, ‘This is great, it’s so small we can take it out and push all the furniture aside and set it up when we need it, and then we’ll break it down when we don’t need it and have a living room again,’” Yang says. “And then it just never got broken down. The studio got bigger and it ended up taking over another room. So now there’s a couch and a lot of microphones, a bunch of amplifiers, and no more extra room.”

And despite the studio’s unavoidable presence, Yang and Krukowski rarely set ideas to tape on a whim. “We’re not too spontaneous that way,” Krukowski says. “We don’t tend to just throw something down. Recording is very time consuming. You set mics up because they have to sound a certain way. The room has to be quiet. We have neighbors and there’s a street in front.”

Besides, Yang and Krukowski don’t spend every waking moment making music. Yang is a graphic artist and photographer, Krukowski is a published poet and critic, and in 1990 they together started Exact Change, a publishing house that specializes in experimental and avant-garde literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, spreading the words of Franz Kafka, Antonin Artaud, Pablo Picasso, and John Cage. “Please let people know we’re not accepting submissions,” Krukowski says, laughing.

Back at the record-release show, the four-song celebration is nearing its all-too-soon ending. “We’ll do one more and then we’ll let you get back to drinking,” Krukowski says. It’s Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” and both sing. They sound incredibly lovely together. The crowd stands motionless, mesmerized by the duo, coming up for air between songs to lavish them rounds of applause. Not one heckle is heard.

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