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This Is His Music

After 10 Years and Seven Albums, Luna's Dean Wareham Hasn't Changed a Thing

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 5/15/2002

Luna makes records so unassuming, exquisitely crafted, instantly comfortable, and emotionally noncommittal that they're as tempting to dismiss as they are to embrace. With the possible exception of Yo La Tengo, no other band is as committed to guitar rapture uncomplicated by dramatic and/or confrontational posturing. Indie rock has always had a somewhat combative relationship with instant pleasure--swathe it in noise, mumble the lyrics, dizzy up the dynamics, you call that singing? But where Yo La Tengo exudes a quiet, geeky obsession both musically and emotionally, Luna plays a similar deck of musical cards like a sharp.

With his release of 1992's Lunapark (credited to Luna²), singer/songwriter/guitarist Dean Wareham seemed to snap to attention after years in the wilderness with his former band, the influential late-'80s trio Galaxie 500. Suddenly his guitar crackled, bit, spoke in tart epigrams. So did his words. ("Soho has the boots/ Noho's got the crack/ New England has the foliage/ But I'm not going back," Wareham observed on the album-opening college-radio hit "Slide.")

Some die-hard Galaxie fans felt betrayed by this sudden burst of personality, defecting to the somnambulant psychedelic folk of the band formed by Galaxie 500's former rhythm section, Damon and Naomi. The rest were content to watch Wareham concoct one of the most consistent catalogs in '90s rock, evidence that what Amiri Baraka called the "changing same" in funk--an unyielding groove that holds your attention with subtle shifts of nuance and emphasis--applies to melodic rock as well. On the surface, Luna's albums differ from one another incrementally if at all: For a first-time listener, the only significant difference might be the crowd nose on last year's Live. OK, the rhythm section now is completely different from the one that Luna started with, but it doesn't matter. Aside from drummer Lee Wall hitting the skins a shade harder than his predecessor, former Feelie Stanley Demeski, the band still clops along at the same impeccable medium-tempo clip.

And Wareham hasn't altered his aesthetic one bit. He used to concoct crisp, dry riffs and singsong away over them in an urbane, deadpan, just-woke-up croak. He still does: Check the riffs on new album Romantica's "Lovedust" and "Black Postcards," or the insouciant way he delivers lines such as "Salt and pepper squid/ And Singapore noodles/ I could stare at your face/ For oodles and oodles" on "Renée is Crying."

But even the most constant formulas have to peak sometime. For Luna, that came in 1995 with its third album, Penthouse, which both solidified the band's method (the riffs on "Rhythm King" and "Sideshow by the Seashore" ripple with an unmatched laconic ease) and raised it to a peak of droll insolence. Containing a sizable complement of Luna's most popular songs--"Chinatown," "23 Minutes in Brussels," "Moon Palace," and a hilarious cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde," a duet with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier--the album remains the group's most popular among hard-core fans.

"And with me too," Wareham avers the morning after an in-store performance at the lower Manhattan Tower Records. "It's the Luna record that I like the most. It usually takes a while for a band to hit its stride. With [Lunapark], I'd just written all these songs and didn't really have a band yet. By Penthouse, we'd been playing three, four years, so it just clicked. Romantica is my favorite album we've done since Penthouse--it's got better songs than the last couple albums."

That's true, though the new album also gets help from subtle touches from outside guests such as ex-Luscious Jackson keyboardist Vivian Trimble and Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann, who adds lush string arrangements to a handful of songs. Luna may never exactly rock out, but "Weird and Woozy" and especially "1995" snarl as easily as the rest of the album lolls.

For nonfans, Luna's expertly crafted guitars may be too polished and too clinical. Even distinct touches--like the wheezy harmonica solo on Romantica's "Swedish Fish"--are blended in with the rest of the mix to gauzy, semidistinct effect. Wareham's whiskey-and-wry voice and nursery-rhyme lyrics don't exactly inspire confidence either. "Ice man ice man/ Candy man sand man/ All the things I wanted for/ Someone else took them," he sings on "Black Postcards." "Lonely in a new shirt/ Lonely watching baseball/ If I had to do it all again/ I wouldn't." This is a long, dark night of the soul?

Of course not. Wareham may be cool and somewhat remote, but he's not stupid enough to pretend his dilemmas are any more important than anybody else's, which is one reason to like his current band better than his old one. Galaxie 500 wore its neuroses on its sleeves like frills. It was mostly content to float around on a groove (if you actually want to call it that) until the vibe gave out (and sometimes well beyond). Though the band coaxed some lovely moments from this method, especially on its first album, 1988's Today, too often the result was the aural equivalent of a passive-aggressive shrug.

While Wareham's sigh remains the same in Luna, the songs have a better foundation. The band sounds less constrained on Romantica than it did on 1997's Pup Tent or 1999's The Days of Our Nights, and the reason for that might be business. When Luna signed to Elektra during the early-'90s alt-rock gold rush, the label no doubt hoped Wareham might be able to parlay Galaxie 500's cult success into mainstream returns. Instead, Luna sold around 50,000 copies per album. "At Elektra, they'd have these meetings every week and make priority lists," Wareham says. "'The number-one priority this week is Natalie Merchant, then Björk, then Better Than Ezra.' I knew we were never on those lists."

Elektra dropped Luna in 1999, right after Nights was finished. Ironically, the album featured the band's most promising hit-single bid--a languid cover of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" originally recorded as a joke B-side. Though Wareham felt uneasy with its inclusion on the album, the track might have received radio play had Luna not been shopping for a new record deal all summer--a season when Sheryl Crow's country-tinged remake of the same song saturated the airwaves.

Romantica comes on New York indie label Jetset--whose roster also includes Mogwai, Black Box Recorder, Macha, and the Go-Betweens--and Wareham sounds relieved with the situation both on record and in person. "What's nice about Jetset is that we're very important to them," he says. "All the way from the distributors to the label, having one person who likes the band and cares about it is worth 10 people just doing their job." Still, he's wry enough to keep things in perspective: Jetset's distributor, it turns out, is the corporate subsidiary Alternative Distributors Alliance.

"They really like Luna, and they're owned by Time Warner," he sighs. "But who isn't?"

Luna plays the 9:30 Club in Washington May 17 and Fletcher's May 18.

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