Continuing to ply his quiet, creative tribute to the Velvet Underground after the end of Galaxie 500, New Zealand-born singer/guitarist Dean Wareham formed Luna in New York with a fellow disciple — ex-Feelies drummer Stanley Demeski-and bassist Justin Harwood, late of the Chills. (Guitarist Sean Eden joined right after the first album.) Taking understatement as its essential ethos, the artfully laconic trio plays simple, relaxed guitar pop with a firm rhythmic spine, positing Wareham’s conversational singing and judicious lead guitar distortion against Demeski’s exacting time-keeping and Harwood’s lyrical bass work. Appealing melodies and lyrics sprinkled with attention-getting oddities (Lunapark‘s opening line — “You can never give the finger to the blind” — is a typical eyebrow-raiser) complete the Luna formula, which started out strong but lately seems to be running low on inspiration.
Initially forced to add a superfluous superscript to mollify a singer with a prior claim on the name, Luna introduced itself as Luna2 on Lunapark, an album of graceful economy produced with pristine elegance by Fred Maher. The band exudes a cool, collected late-night atmosphere, even on such relatively demonstrative outpourings as “Slash Your Tires,” the danceably bustling “Smile” and the quick-paced “I Can’t Wait.” Despite one egregious lapse in originality — hijacking the chords and melody of Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately” for “I Want Everything” — and a couple of overly drowsy numbers, Lunapark is a dream that stays with you long after the dawn.
The six-song Slide EP gets its title track from Lunapark and adds a demo of the album’s “Hey Sister,” the surprisingly aggressive “Rollercoaster,” spare, languorous covers of Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer” and the Velvets’ “Ride Into the Sun” and a bracing rendition of Steve Wynn’s “That’s What You Always Say.”
Bewitched expands the quartet’s reach, increasing the energy and dynamics while incorporating spots of trumpet, clarinet, organ, vibes and a visit from VU guitarist Sterling Morrison. With one foot in the artful restraint of Lunapark and the other setting off for more ambitious parts, the album builds its sandcastles on a bed of solid tunes: the catchy “Tiger Lily,” the Feelies-like “Friendly Advice” (which obsesses on a pair of chords for more than six mesmerizing minutes), “This Time Around,” “Going Home” and the gently grand condescension of “I Know You Tried.”
Though it sounds like a Luna record, Penthouse sags as the band merely goes through the motions. (The glum booklet photo matches, if not explains, the music’s tepid enthusiasm level.) The melodies and emotionally limited arrangements — which include traces of theremin, mellotron, strings and guest star Tom Verlaine — are at best adequately plain and frequently less than that. (Aping the Feelies’ rising and falling monomania — which Luna does on “Freakin’ and Peakin’ ” — hardly flatters a band that should have long ago moved beyond such temptations.) Whether the result of inadequate effort, willful apathy or both, Wareham’s singing is careless, his lyrics pedestrian going on awful. Considering the band could once claim songwriting as its most striking asset, it’s telling that the two most memorable items here are Verlaine’s guitar solo on “23 Minutes in Brussels” and the jamming coda of “Kalamazoo.” For those who make it to the end, Penthouse contains, as a bizarre unlisted bonus, “Bonnie and Clyde,” a duet (recorded originally by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot) sung in French by Wareham and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier.