Within These Walls is the seventh full-length Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang have put out as Damon & Naomi since Galaxie 500 broke up in 1991. In many ways, the other six have been developments of their previous band’s work. This is not to say Yang and Krukowski have been artistically stagnant. Rather, each album was a striking and usually blissful elaboration on the aesthetic they had already charted. They were melancholy but not mopey, and the music had an unmistakably spiritual element. Much has been made of the duo’s lack of musical proficiency, but I can’t fathom why anyone feels the need to mention it. Very few bands can conjure atmospheres as dreamily potent as Damon & Naomi. On Within These Walls, they give up some of their ethereal textures in favor of a slicker sound, and it makes the album such a puzzler on first listen.
Michio Kurihara, guitarist for Japanese psych-rock band Ghost, has played on the previous three Damon & Naomi albums. On Damon & Naomi with Ghost (2000), their first collaboration, his wailing solos lent a driving immediacy. His presence on Within These Walls saves it from schlock. The first three lines of “Stars Never Fade” are “The world through your eyes looks so elegant/ That perfect slanting light, the satin gowns/ Could it really be/ such a place of harmony?” There’s a bit about how the “moment is caught, saved forever” before the song ends in unremarkable soft-rock fashion. Just when it sounds like this forgettable and maudlin song is mercifully winding down, Kurihara launches, patiently at first, into a solo, departing from the established tone of the song, laying on the fuzz and bending notes as if it’s the guys in Ghost he has playing behind him. As he fades out, a softly chugging string arrangement emerges from the mix, and suddenly it all seems so much better. It’s actually a pretty good song.
It is hard to appreciate Within These Walls without thinking about its totality. It has its cringe-inducing moments, but they are set against equally odd and compelling ones, making it Damon & Naomi’s most ambitious and eclectic (though uneven) album. There are some horn arrangements that I swear sound like the music played in the lobbies of huge office buildings and others that evoke ’60s pop, and “Cruel Queen” bears evidence of Fairport Convention’s influence. But listen to it all the way through a few times and you may come around to it.