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Rock/Pop

Luna returns to the penthouse

The lasting legacy of a group, of a sound, that always bewitched

Photo courtesy Sean Eden Sean
Lost in Space: Luna drives off into the sunset.
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Published 8/16/2006

Best of Luna
Rhino

Lunafied
Rhino Digital

Tell Me Do You Miss Me
Rhino DVD

Luna never changed. The band members rotated — original bassist Justin Harwood and drummer Stanley Demeski left, to be replaced by Britta Phillips and Lee Wall — but the music, for the most part, stayed the same. The sound that existed on the 1992 debut Lunapark, released a year after leader Dean Wareham's first band Galaxie 500 disintegrated, is pretty much the same sound as their 2004 swan song Rendezvous. The relaxed tempos, laconic vocals, witty subject matter, slight sense of whimsy and tricky guitar interplay between Wareham and Sean Eden were there all along.

Most of the time we want bands to take chances and move beyond themselves. We want something new. But sometimes, when quality remains high, these things are overrated. The nature of Luna's subtle aesthetic was such that new songs, not new sounds, were what fans wanted. This band never needed a sonic refitting at the hands of an outside producer, someone like Nigel Godrich, for example. For their entire history, another Luna album simply meant another good Luna album.

But there will be no more. In 2004, Wareham decided that keeping the band together no longer made sense, and the tour that followed Rendezvous was it. They played their final show in February 2005. Filmmaker Matthew Buzzell was there to document the last waltz, following Luna on that final swing and editing the results down to Tell Me Do You Miss Me. The DVD comes at the same time as two other Luna documents, the well-selected 16-track Best of Luna and the download-only Lunafied, which assembles 15 covers recorded over the course of the group's run, many of them fan favorites. Taken together, the three releases are a great summary of Luna's own legacy. But they also re-emphasize how important the band really was within the landscape of indie pop.

As Best of Luna makes clear, Dean Wareham's sense of humor was often overlooked because he was so deadpan. He was like an actor in a David Mamet film, letting his carefully chosen words do most of the work, so a funny line was delivered in the same relaxed cadence as the inevitable melancholy twist a song would receive at its end. "And now I realize I'm livin' like a trucker does/Although I haven't got the belly" cozies up near "Why has my sympathy now turned to malice/ It doesn't matter any more" in "California (All the Way)," and the emotional tenor of the song ebbs and flows accordingly. Almost every track here has a line that's just as funny, but Luna songs aren't the sort of thing that make you laugh out loud. The humor was just part of the package, a bemused POV being inevitable when you spend time thinking about human foibles.

Luna also had a strong sense of tradition. In the first shot in Tell Me Do You Miss Me, the camera follows Wareham and Phillips around the New York City apartment they share as they get ready to cab down to the final Luna show. We see a massive wall of CDs that number in the mid-thousands, a visual aid that reveals what we already knew — Dean Wareham is a music geek's music geek, a guy who loves music dearly and knows his music from the '60s and '70s as well as anybody.

It makes sense then that the band saw itself as the latest in a long line of East Coast guitar bands stretching back through the Feelies, Television, Modern Lovers and on back to — as all these bands inevitably do — the Velvet Underground. And accordingly, some of the highlights from Best of Luna are when they collaborate with their forebears. "Friendly Advice" from 1994's Bewitched features VU's Sterling Morrison doing skewed variations on the kind of melody that was his trademark — and which were a heavy influence on Wareham — and at six-and-a-half minutes it gives a sense of what Luna could do when they gave themselves room to stretch. "23 Minutes in Brussels," always the Luna show-closer, is just as long, with a bent, psychedelic solo from Television's Tom Verlaine. Wareham's own brilliant solo on the drawn-out and surging "Black Postcards" from the DVD shows that he had no trouble hanging with his heroes.

That Luna didn't hesitate to work with artists they were compared to reveals a lot about their confidence. The same goes for their frequent covers, which often leaned heavily on direct influences, although they had a way of making songs sound like Wareham had written them. Lunafied pays tribute to some names that undoubtedly reside in his giant wall of CDs — Harry Nilsson and Fred Neil (a wonderful "Everybody's Talking"), Suicide (a sunny and open "Dream Baby Dream," which Luna was born to play) and, of course, VU ("Ride Into the Sun"). The collection's a treat for the download-savvy, but it's good enough to warrant a proper CD release.

So Luna's gone for good. But we haven't heard the last of Wareham. He and Phillips just finished recording an album together, another mix of originals and covers that, if it's anything like their first, will find them trading vocals like Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. We know what to expect, then, and we can bet that Wareham will deliver.

Mark Richardson is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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