The quartet of albums that Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang made for Sub Pop in the late 90s and early 00s abound with heartbreak and wonder. In particular, 1998’s Playback Singers and 2000’s With Ghost (a collaboration with the Japanese psych-rock group Ghost) move from the heartrendingly intimate to addressing larger questions of identity and faith. The Sub Pop Years, released on their own 20|20|20 label, stands as a summation of those albums, an overview of the period following their debut, More Sad Hits, but before the more intricate work of their last few albums.
Four of the songs here come from With Ghost, including the sweepingly autumnal “The Mirror Phase” and the Jewish culture exploratory “Judah and the Maccabees.” But the album that’s represented most heavily is, in its own way, itself a compilation: 2002’s live Song to the Siren. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the group’s precision in the live setting means that certain songs (“Turn of the Century” chief among them) don’t have the more frayed sound one associates with live versions — but the presence of audience sounds following a few songs, particularly in the transition from “Song to the Siren” to “The Navigator,” is distracting. It’s an occupational hazard when blending studio and live recordings, and it’s certainly disconcerting here.
At its best, this compilation emphasizes the group’s strengths: the varied but complementary voices of Krukowski and Yang, their attention to details in the songs they write and play, and their ability to move from sentimentality to baroque precision. (As someone whose interest in the band was sparked by these albums, I can see the appeal.) Their more recent work has found them moving to deeper levels of intricacy in their arrangements, but they’ve also had a hand in reissuing their debut More Sad Hits (as well as the work of their previous band Galaxie 500). Taken together, the evolution charted here stands as one of the most consistent bodies of work made by a group of musicians across several decades. It’s a fine thing to see that history summarized here, though one hopes that newcomers to the band will be able to legitimately hear the albums that yielded these songs in full.