Space Opera 

Dragoon melds prog, pop, and punk on new release.

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You can't always judge an album by its cover, but perhaps, in the case of Dragoon's This Galaxy Is but a Nursery, you can. An illustration by California artist Jeremy Melton depicts the Memphis trio, Bobby Matthews (vocals/guitar), Stan Gallimore (drums), and Tripp Lamkins (bass/guitar), clad in 2001-style space suits.

They are emerging from a scarab-inspired spaceship much like the one originally depicted on Journey's Escape album. In the menacing sky above them, a trio of flying saucers, exactly like the ones you've probably seen on albums by the Electric Light Orchestra, are shooting down the guitar-like spacecraft which first appeared on Boston's debut album. If you know the code, you can read this cover like a book.

Lamkins elaborates: "On the first Boston album, the Earth is blowing up and all those guitar-shaped spaceships seem to be carrying away various cities from Earth. If you notice, the crashed ship in the background says MEMPHIS on it. And yes, that's Memphis burning on top of it."

Dragoon has regularly explored the dimensional bleed separating prog, pop, and punk, and as one might gather from the cover art, this time around the band is sampling from the warmer, headier regions without giving up any of the rock or giving into trippy indulgences. Nothing about Dragoon's debut album, The Offending Party, will prepare listeners for the rock choir harmonies (think Journey's "Feeling That Way"), earnest acoustic guitars, madrigal-inspired solos, and falsetto voices that color This Galaxy Is but a Nursery.

Party was noisier and steeped in the grimy Southern art-rock aesthetic of Lamkins and Gallimore's '90s-era band, the Grifters. Careful listeners may still hear traces of that when Lamkins' melodic bass lines wander across Gallimore's harder drumming, but this often sounds like a completely different band, with Matthews' vocals way up front.

"I wasn't happy with most of the first record, but I didn't intend to ever release it," Lamkins says. "What sucked about it was we'd started out using all our various old four-track cassette machines, primarily the one the Grifters used to record on, and then to add the vocal tracks I was transferring it to the computer. Well, I didn't really know what I was doing and learned along the way. So some of the songs, like 'If You Say So,' came out sounding horrible."

Galaxy isn't exactly a throwback, but it barely acknowledges that the last two (and sometimes three or four) decades ever happened. Side one's "Be in My Movie" sounds a little like early Guided by Voices, and "Cowcatcher" has a Pavement-like bounce to it. Lamkins' song "Sold" has been performed, in some version or another, by virtually every band he's been in and first appeared on the Paper Plates' first and only CD. Otherwise, this diverse collection of songs is a completely different trip through time and space, with unexpected hat-tips to epic rock acts like Queen."You can compare us to Sweet," Lamkins says.

It's a joke, but if "Teenage Rampage" hadn't already been written, it's not hard to imagine Dragoon writing it.

Lamkins was reticent to switch over to an all-digital recording process, but his trusty four-track died and the leap was made. "It hasn't really been that big of a deal," he says. "In fact, I love it, and as a result, the new record just sounds so much better."

"Another thing: This record was really mastered," says Matthews, name-checking former Island Records A&R man Jesse Obstbaum, who released Galaxy on his indie label LA's Fine.

"Fortunately for us, Jesse is still in the business and knows some serious pros out in Cali," says Lamkins, who first met Obstbaum in the '90s when Island was flirting with the Grifters. "We're elated with the way the new record sounds."

This Galaxy Is but a Nursery was originally intended as a seven-song digital release but grew into a full LP.

"Jesse came back to us and said the EP was great, but the way the vinyl market works now you need bonus songs," Matthews says. In the scramble for material to fill side two, Dragoon ended up including a handful of cheerier-than-usual songs Matthews originally recorded for his personal Bandcamp page.

"I was initially dead set against using those songs," Matthews says of his personal material. "'Vicinity' is very much a romantic love song. But then Tripp would put them together and play them on the CD, and I could hear it."

"'Vicinity' is the greatest love song I've ever had the pleasure of being associated with," Lamkins says.

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