This debut album by Luna is a delightfully low-key affair that should greatly appeal to fans of Wareham’s former band, Galaxie 500, though there are definitely differences between the two bands. For one thing, generally speaking Wareham's new rhythm section of Stanley Demeski (ex-Feelies) and Justin Harwood (ex-Chills) bring more speed, energy, and precision to the proceedings. The songs themselves are more pop oriented (i.e. the sound is cleaner), upbeat, and concise, and Wareham's better-enunciated vocals are more up front and center. Wareham’s plaintive vocals, while still not exceptional in any way whatsoever, fit his band’s tempered grooves, and clever lyrics like “you can never give the finger to the blind” or other intriguing sound bites such as “in my dreams I slash your tires” consistently captivate. This album features a beguiling mixture of simply strummed melodies and louder forays into fuzzed out melodicism, and like Galaxie 500 Luna is very much a guitar-driven, groove-based band. Even more so, actually, as it’s easy to slowly sway along to the delicate grooves here, and the album retains a charmingly modest ambiance even when the band turns up the volume or speeds up the tempo. Again, there's nothing fancy here, and I can see how some people might find the band too plain or boring, but to my ears this is just good, nothing fancy music. More than anything, Wareham and co. have crafted consistently engaging pop melodies, my favorites of which probably reside on "Slide," "Slash Your Tires," "Smile," and "We're Both Confused." All in all, despite the album’s stylistic limitations (i.e. lack of variety) and unoriginal origins, this was an extremely strong first effort that I've listened to and enjoyed repeatedly over the years.
Bewitched (Elektra '94) Rating: A-
Luna had actually been credited as Luna2 on Lunapark due to some new age musician who went by that name, but after paying her off the band, now officially named Luna, released the Slide EP before delivering Bewitched, the band’s first full-length album as a four piece, new guitarist Sean Eden having been recruited via an ad in the Village Voice. Whereas Lunapark was mostly laid-back, it sounds almost jaunty by comparison to Bewitched, whose gently melodic, subtly understated songs are consistently strong, consistency being Wareham's calling card above all else. Though its dreamy, melancholic ambiance makes Bewitched work extremely well as an actual album, there’s no denying that its first two songs are the standouts, as "California (All the Way)" has a nice relaxing riff and is an unassuming winner in the band’s best style, while “Tiger Lily” is a multi-tracked delight bolstered by a simple but irresistible low-key groove. Elsewhere, the band expands their sound somewhat, adding vibes, Hammond organ, and trumpet to several songs, while Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison guests on a pair of tracks, “Friendly Advice” and “Great Jones Street.” Luna had opened for VU on their European tour that summer, and I guess they struck up a friendship, but anyway Morrison really makes his presence felt on “Friendly Advice,” a rare out and out rocker on which the pace picks up and it's easy to get caught up in its exciting guitar groove. “This Time Around” is also more lively than the surrounding songs and is also one of the album’s hookier songs, though pretty much every song here, aside from the plodding finale, “Sleeping Pill,” is pleasantly hummable and easy on the ears. The main “problem” with this album is that it’s consistently satisfying in such a spectacularly unspectacular way that I’m tempted to describe the band's sound as formulaic. But that would be unfair, and though perhaps Lunapark has more songs that stand out, I’m tempted to call Bewitched even better on a song-for-song basis. Then again, this band is so consistent that making comparisons seems pointless; which albums I prefer largely depends on which mood I’m in, but suffice it to say that the soft, hypnotic tunes on Bewitched are as appealing as a warm, comfy blanket.
Penthouse (Elektra '95) Rating: A
Although it runs a little on the long side and sometimes seems more about grooves than songs (albeit damn good grooves), Penthouse was another winner that gets better and better the more you get to know it. In fact, I think that the common consensus is that this is Luna's best album, and I certainly wouldn't dispute that assessment. Much has been made of the obvious debt the band owes to The Velvet Underground, but here another equally important influence is made apparent, with Television's Tom Verlaine providing guitar help on "Moon Palace" and "23 Minutes In Brussels," two of the album's most impressive tracks in large part due to his singular presence. There are plenty of relaxed grooves and memorable riffs elsewhere as well, and plenty of guitar solos too as Wareham remains a most able if unassuming guitar hero. Songs such as "Chinatown" and "Hedgehog" see Wareham in a lyrically playful mood, and the pace even picks up on "Double Feature" and "Freakin' and Peakin'," while Stereolab's Latitia Sadier's guests on a suitably mysterious cover of Serge Gainsborg's "Bonnie and Clyde." I dig the twisting riffs on "Sideshow By The Seashore," one of several songs that evocatively evokes a specific place, whether it be Chinatown, Brussels, "Kalamazoo," or space like in "Lost In Space," one of the album's hookiest tunes. On the whole, the album features longer songs, several of which exceed 6 minutes, and though describing a song such as the jazzy, summery "Rhythm King" as "nice" might seem like I'm damning the band with faint praise, I sincerely mean it as a compliment. Again, the band are their own victims in that they deliver consistently appealing music but of a subtly ingratiating type that doesn't call attention to itself. Fortunately, I don't work PR for the band, which has always been a tough sell (though I mentioned in my Galaxie 500 reviews that Luna were more popular than Galaxie 500 they still never had more than a dedicated cult following), but as a music fan I'm thankful for their seemingly effortless ability to craft smoothly flowing albums full of laid-back summery goodness. In fact, I just spent Father's Day with my two kids by my pool playing this album, and I couldn't help but think that "it doesn't get much better than this."
Pup Tent (Elektra '97) Rating: B+
A slight slip up but another strong showing nevertheless, Pup Tent is a little tougher to embrace than previous albums, as several songs run a little long and the album is more abstract and less memorable on the whole. Still, there are some excellent songs, such as "Beautiful View," which features Wareham's languid, liquid guitar and an upbeat, catchy chorus. Wareham's plaintive vocals on "Bobby Peru," another hummable highlight, are so damn comforting; he just makes you feel like a long time friend, someone who is easily likeable and worthy of your trust (though Damon and Naomi may beg to differ). "Beggar's Bliss" is another blissfully laconic, low-key winner, and "Tracy I Love You" is a dreamy, countrified groover that's also really good. Like I said, there's plenty to like here, but I can't really remember too much about the rest of these songs, some of which are too murky for their own good, the prime offenders on this front being "Pup Tent" and "The Creeps." Also, the strategy of downplaying Wareham's guitar in favor of Harwood's keyboards isn't my idea of a good idea. His vocals are also at times electronically altered or barely whispered, or spoken rather than sung, again playing against his easy-going strengths. Luna still manages to do "mood music" well, and there are deceptive vocal hooks on "Whispers" and "City Kitty," it's just that they do light, summery, groove-based guitar rock much better, and too often Pup Tent sees the band trying to expand their range and do different things, despite the fact that by now Wareham's limited range has been well-established. This hasn't hurt him in the past, of course, and my hope is that the next time out he simply sticks to what he's best at, though an occasional curveball would still be welcome. On a final note, Lee Wall replaced Demeski on drums on this album, and while we're at it I'll mention that "Fuzzy Wuzzy" has a hypnotic, churning guitar groove even if it isn't much of an actual song. Also, there are only nine songs on Pup Tent, which works in the album's favor as Penthouse was definitely too long.
The Days Of Our Nights (Jericho '99) Rating: B+
After being dumped by Elektra and eventually picked up by Jericho, Luna returned with this wordily titled (for them) album, which seems to have received the most lukewarm reviews among the band's records. I can see why, as some of the band's melodies seem awfully familiar at this point, and there's also some validity to All Music Guide reviewer Sanz Lashley's complaint about the "the lack of emotional nuance in the vocals." Still, the band's formula is well established at this point, and they stick with it because it still works, and this album's charms, like all of their album's charms, becomes apparent over time. It's still not a top-tier Luna album, but it is a consistently pleasant and enjoyable one just the same, and it has characteristics that distinguish it from their other albums. For one thing, the band seems more apt to add atmospheric strings, mellotrons, and/or cellos on this one, and this is also Dean Wareham's "guitar hero" album. Wareham's songwriting may not be in peak form, but his guitar playing has rarely been better, easily elevating the album above the ordinary. In fact, his guitar solos - sometimes multiple guitar solos in songs such as the upbeat, hooky "Four Thousand Days" (probably my favorite song here) and the dreamily swirling "Seven Steps To Satan" - highlight the album's best songs, including the aforementioned two but also "Dear Diary," "Hello Little One," "Words Without Wrinkles," and "U.S. Out Of My Pants!" (terrible title, good song). Actually, as per usual Luna are consistently pleasant throughout even if few of these songs stand out or are especially memorable; the album's most oft-remarked upon song is a cover of Guns n' Roses "Sweet Child O' Mine" that unsurprisingly sounds far more like Luna than GNR. I prefer the classic original version by a wide margin, but this attempt works better than you'd expect, and I feel that the album on the whole works better than most people seem to think.
Luna Live (Arena Rock Recording ‘01) Rating: A-
Five albums into a consistently strong career seemed about the right time for a career encompassing live retrospective, and, unimaginative album title aside, Luna Live is about as good as you'd expect (and hope for). The album is compiled from shows at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. and the Knitting Factory in New York City, and new bass player Britta Phillips plays on half the tracks (1-3, 11-14) while Harwood is present on the middle of the album (tracks 4-10). The end result still sounds seamless rather than contrived, and the set list is tough to fault, as the band runs through many of the best songs from their back catalogue, with the ones from Penthouse unsurprisingly standing out from the pack. The band smartly includes the most songs from that album by far; "23 Minutes In Brussels," on which Wareham and Eden's spidery guitar parts would make Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd proud, is the obvious standout. A great rendition of the old Galaxie 500 tune "4th Of July" and a version of "Bonnie and Clyde" with Phillips taking co-lead vocals are other notables, but really this is an album where you can just press play, sit back, and enjoy the ride. I mean, even a song that I wasn't crazy about in its initial incarnation, such as "Pup Tent," sounds much better here, and if I could criticize this album I would say that it's mildly disappointing how faithful most of these songs are to the original studio versions. I would've liked to have seen more extended improvisations and risks taken, and as always with these guys there are few songs that make me think, "wow these guys are amazing!" No, they're more subtle than that, and besides, their strengths easily overwhelm their faults anyway. After all, not many bands are amazing or groundbreaking, and the superbly recorded Luna Live contains really good performances of really good songs by a really good band. Which is good enough for me, and hopefully for you as well.
Romantica (Jetset '02) Rating: A-
One of the nineties more reliable bands entered the '00s with more of the same only better, as the brightly upbeat music here is more vibrant and energetic than either Pup Tent or The Days Of Our Nights, and as such Romantica stands as the band's best studio album since Penthouse. Dean's recent divorce is probably the impetus for weary, bitter lyrics like "I'm tired of having no future, and I'm tired of pushing my luck" and "let me tell you about the agony of love," but hindsight is 20/20 and we all know now that he fell in love with bassist Britta, whose airy, honey voiced backing vocals greatly enhance standout tracks like "Weird and Woozy" and "Renee Is Crying," plus the two also duet on "Mermaid Eyes," another winning entry. The album is co-produced by Dave Fridmann (with ex dB Gene Holder), but he mostly lets the band do what they do best, only occasionally announcing his presence like on the lush "Black Champagne." Lyrically, as you'd expect the album is far from all doom and gloom; I mean, how can anyone resist (admittedly silly) lines like "salt and pepper and squid, and Singapore noodles, I could look at your face, for oodles and oodles"? I know that I can't, and musically the band attempts a little variety; witness the contrast between the short, almost punkish "1995" and the slow, melancholic ballad "Rememories." Still, as per usual the band are at their best when delivering melodic, dreamy, hummable mid-tempo pop rock like on "Lovedust" and "Black Postcards," which feature memorable riffs and singable choruses. As per usual, Dean isn't averse to adding a guitar solo here and there as well, even if they don't usually last long, and though perhaps a few tracks here are less than memorable, they're never less than perfectly pleasant. The epic-scale title track brings the album to a satisfying conclusion, as the reliably pleasing Luna delivered yet another enjoyable installment within an increasingly impressive career.
Rendezvous (Beggars Banquet '04) Rating: B+
This album provided a fittingly elegant and understated finale to the band's fine career together, as they decided to amicably part ways and pursue other projects (Dean and Britta stayed together of course, recording as Dean & Britta). Rendezvous starts extremely strong with fast-paced highlights such as "Malibu Love Nest," "Speedbumps," and "Astronaut" (the latter remade from a previous EP, Close Cover Before Striking), all of which show off the band's melodic gifts and impressive dual guitar interplay. Also of note is "Cindy Tastes Of Barbecue," with its slithery riffs and cute "doo doo doo" vocal hooks, and "The Owl and the Pussy Cat," a pretty, romantic, downright poetic ("hand by hand on the edge of the sand, we danced by the light of the moon") ballad. The second half of the album drifts pleasantly by (as always) but without much in the way of memorable songs, and the album on the whole features a more stripped down sound, while perhaps the songs themselves are a bit too laid back and hook free for their own good. Then again, as is always the case with Luna, this is still a very good album, one that's aided by the increased participation of Eden, who writes and sings a pair of pretty ballads ("Broken Chair," "Still At Home") on which his fragile falsetto provides a smoother and more emotional contrast to Dean's deadpan warble. Britta again chimes in on backing vocals on a few tracks as well, and her voice is always welcome; I wish she sang more in fact. The jam-based ending of "Star-Spangled Man" once more sees the band finding inspiration in the tense guitar duels of Television, while a predictably good groove propels "Buffalo Boots." So, there's nothing wrong with this album at all, it's another welcome addition that caps off a remarkably consistent catalogue, but Rendezvous doesn't really add anything new to the band's legacy, either, which perhaps explains why the band decided to call it a day.
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