Damon & Naomi - "Tanka" (Damon & Naomi With Ghost)
It’s kind of weird to think that two decades have passed since Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang were forced to re-think their musical practice, due to circumstances that still seem well beyond their control (the break-up of their college group, Galaxie 500). Surely it’s not been quite that long? But as sure as time drives the truck, we’re far from 1991. The duo’s subsequent history is well-documented, both in interviews, and via their relatively recent compilation, 2009’s The Sub Pop Years, which collected the most melancholy moments from the four great albums they made for the label. One of those records, and perhaps the hinge of their career as an acid-folk duo so far, was Damon & Naomi With Ghost, which now re-appears, like a specter haunting the air, via Drag City, who originally handled the vinyl duties, back in 2000. (The new vinyl edition has been updated with a free 7”, including covers of songs by Kazuki Tomokawa and The Velvet Underground.)
If Damon & Naomi With Ghost feels like the fulcrum of Damon & Naomi’s record-making career, it’s largely because teaming up with Japanese psych outfit Ghost quietly, but surely, blew their doors wide open. Having previously recorded either with producer Kramer (on 1992’s More Sad Hits and 1995’s The Wondrous World) or, hermetic and inward-looking, as a duo (on their 1991 EP Pierre Etoile and Playback Singers, from 1998), recording with Ghost gave Krukowski and Yang creative license to stretch their songs every which way. Once playing primarily to and for each other, now Damon & Naomi were indulging in braver, bolder arrangements, with moments of great poise and delicacy juxtaposed by the whiplash crack of Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara’s Cippolina-stained guitar solos. Perhaps most importantly, they’d also found the freedom to explore states of emotional candor and extremity only previously hinted at, though here they’re often filtered through mythopoesis.
This tendency reached its own conclusion with 2007’s heartbreaking Within These Walls, and the sound of that record is formatively articulated here. But unlike the sadness of that album, here things often move with a joyous gait: the opening “The Mirror Phase” soars into a chorus where Krukowski’s falsetto takes the air; “The New World,” Ghost leader Masaki Batoh’s co-writing credit on the album, shares the same bucolic pleasance as his group’s more folksy moments, but with Yang singing, the song is both fragile and dusted with sugar; “I Dreamed of the Caucasus” flat-out rocks, with Kurihara’s guitar screaming out of the gate mid-song, his tone set to stun. And when they lock into hypnotic, mesmeric repetition, on the outros to “The Great Wall” and “Tanka,” you can hear the music inhaling and exhaling, with Kurihara called on to steer the songs to other planes of where.
The thing I hadn’t really noticed before, or at least hadn’t fully appreciated, was the way arranger Kazuo Ogino’s keyboards frame the songs so beautifully, whether providing the bed of organ that underlays “…Caucasus,” the trilling, bird-like notes that dapple “The New World” with light and rain, or his beautiful piano on the closing Tim Hardin cover, “Eulogy To Lenny Bruce.” That last song ends the album on an unsettling note, with Yang spiraling inwards, deep into the song’s core, singing the final lines of each verse in a round, while guitars alternately twine and corrode. It’s disturbingly beautiful, then; but what I’ll take from this album is the landscape of possibility it paints, in the middle of which stand two musicians, their partnership taking another stride forward, starting to really articulate their voices and vision. And in that sense, Damon & Naomi With Ghost is nothing short of revelatory.