Dean Wareham, reluctant leader of the band Luna, prefers to work in lyrical fragments instead of straightforward stories. It helps, then, that his pieces tend to be more interesting than whatever tale he's trying to tell at the time. Granted, lyrical bits such as "You're out all night chasing girlies / You're late to work, and you go home earlies," tend to the absurd, but at least Wareham has managed to skirt clich with memorable nonsense. As the singer/guitarist notes, "It's just easier to be cryptic. I mean, how many stories can one person tell about his own life?"
"Cryptic" might well sum up Luna's latest, Penthouse, a CD to think to and trip to -- sometimes simultaneously. Wareham's vagueness as a lyricist contributes to music that can evaporate into its own blurry atmosphere, as if its creators just spent an afternoon glued to the couch with a few six-packs and a bong. Still, the music manages to hold the essence of whatever mood is suitable at the time while it strains for some sort of catharsis through the sheer friction of restraint bumping up against excess. Sending out its understated melodies in stoned six-string waves of reverb and tremolo, Penthouse adopts a peculiar ambiguity that clears with time. It's well worth sticking around for the inevitable revelations -- even if many of them never quite seem real.
"I like to set [things] up, then deflate [them] -- walk the line between clever and dumb," says Wareham, borrowing loosely from a line in This Is Spinal Tap, one of his favorite films.
Over the last eight years, Wareham's habit of trailing off into the unreal and often nonsensical has netted him nearly as many one-star reviews as it has critical accolades. Much of the negative press came during Wareham's stay with Galaxie 500, a trio of Ivy Leaguers with a serious Velvet Underground fixation. From 1987 to 1990, the group released three CDs; in the process, it managed to polarize opinions with its rambling, occasionally self-indulgent swirl of sound. With few reservations, the alterna-hipsters at Spin and the now-defunct Trouser Press dubbed Galaxie 500's approach ambitious, if somewhat flawed and derivative. But the old guard at Rolling Stone wasn't as kind, dismissing the group as hapless, over-thinking nerds and Wareham's vocals as a pitchless annoyance. As for the reaction Galaxie 500 induced in the average listener, it was much the same as that of the press -- meaning there was little room for lukewarm responses. You either fell hard for their lo-fi trial-and-error experiments, psychedelic revisionism and ragged, recycled licks, or you wrote them off as tuneless mopers with a drummer who couldn't keep proper time if he were wired to a metronome.
Despite the conflicting views, by the early part of this decade, Galaxie 500 appeared to be making some headway. While working on 1990's This Is Our Music, the group streamlined its sound, which helped them emerge from the Velvets' shadow. Still, the band was doomed, not because of outside criticism so much as because of internal tensions that began making everyone miserable -- especially Wareham, who abandoned the trio in 1992.
"I couldn't stop thinking about leaving," he recalls. "I guess I felt sort of trapped in my own band. The other two [bassist Naomi Yang and drummer Damon Krukowski] were a couple, and that just cannot work as a chemistry in the long run. We could only take it so far." Also, Wareham admits, "We were bad live. We were a trio, and it was hard to pull off a lot of the stuff we recorded."
That hasn't been a problem with Luna, which Wareham cobbled together almost as soon as Galaxie 500 was history. In fact, his current project is well known for its taught, powerful on-stage delivery. The group is anchored by former Feelies drummer Stanley Demeski and ex-Chills bassist Justin Harwood.
Add guitarist Sean Eden to the mix, and you've got yourself a regular cross-cultural think tank, with New Zealanders Wareham and Harwood providing the islander mentality, New Jersey native Demeski the go-getter attitude and Canadian Eden the border-hopping frontier spirit. "I actually have fun now when I'm on the road," says Wareham.
On Penthouse -- as on 1994's Bewitched and Luna's 1993 debut, Lunapark -- the references to junk culture, short-lived trends and TV and movie icons of eras past give the impression of a band of camera-wielding tourists wandering the American landscape, obsessed with the country's many myths and illusions. Take, for instance, Penthouse's grainy black-and-white cover photos of '40s-era New York and song titles such as "Chinatown," "California" and "Bewitched" -- you can't get any more blunt in your affections than copping the name of one of the 1960s' most popular sitcoms.
Given his visitor's perspective, it seems odd to discover that Wareham has spent much of his life in the U.S., and that much of what he writes about isn't new to him. But maybe his attitude is genetic; his father was infatuated with the prospect of living in America, and he passed that sense of wonder on to his son. Isolation, Wareham says, is New Zealand's biggest drawback, and it imbues many of the country's residents with a sort of island fever. "It's one of the most beautiful places on earth," he notes, "but I don't know if you'd want to live there." A few of Wareham's strongest memories of childhood in New Zealand involve family trips to Lunapark, a theme park that had a special section inside called Coney Island. When Wareham was 14, his dad decided it was time to reside near the real item, so he moved everyone to the United States.
Wareham went to high school in New York City, doing well enough to get into Harvard. While he was in college, Wareham admits, his scholastic pursuits took a back seat to social distractions, chief among them music. While at Harvard, he played in a Clash cover band with Damon Krukowski, who had been a friend since high school. But it wasn't until about two years after graduation that Wareham, tiring of his post-college temp jobs, hooked up with Krukowski and Naomi Yang to form Galaxie 500.
"I loved music, but it always seemed like a long shot. I never thought I'd become a professional musician," says Wareham. "Now, I don't know what else I'd do."
While Wareham admits that foreign origins do play a role in Luna's makeup, he would like to think that they don't overwhelm his band's persona. In conversation, Wareham retains little of his New Zealand accent, and years of separation from his homeland ensure that Penthouse's urbane, Americanized feel is the result of actual experience. But then again, nothing about Luna is easy to figure out, so it's difficult to know for sure whether Wareham's disjointed perspective is derived from his occasional whirlwind trip to Europe, the street activity below his Greenwich Village loft or his mental excursions to the chilly surface of the moon. Probably it's a little of all three -- and others.
One thing concrete about Luna, however, is its defiantly adult sound. On Penthouse, the band has matured gracefully and, for the most part, outgrown its Velvet Underground training wheels. One reason for that, says Wareham, was producer/engineer Pat McCarthy, who has worked with the Butthole Surfers and R.E.M. McCarthy, who mixed the CD, also acted as an editor, toning down some of the more garish sonic experiments and trimming the more rambling jams. "When you're deep inside a record, you think that everything you're doing is interesting," says Wareham. "Pat would come in and say, 'Well, this is boring.' "
While Luna's new measure of restraint probably won't help it win popularity with the hormonally challenged crowd that worships the likes of Bush, it has put them back into favor with the critics. That, combined with the fact that Penthouse contains 12 of the band's catchiest songs to date, is enough to make Wareham want to revel in a bit of told-you-so vindication. Maybe if he's lucky, the time will come when he won't have to endure quite so many Luna reviews that mention Lou Reed's name before his own.
"It's kind of ridiculous," says Wareham. "Right now there are countless alternative bands that all sound like each other, and we're being called copiers, which is absurd. To me, Luna doesn't sound like any other band out there right now."
Luna performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, February 1, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Show open to 18 and older; tickets are $5. American Analog Set opens. For info, call 869-
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