By: Eric Greenwood
Add a hot bass player to your line-up and suddenly your tunes get happy and you name your album Romantica. Coincidence? Hmm. After the dark departure of the stellar Days Of Our Nights, Luna returns three years later with a new bass player (Britta Phillips), yes, but also a much brighter outlook on life. Is Dean Wareham happy? Well, he sure sounds like it. Typically, when an artist finds happiness, his art suffers considerably. My old stand-by example is Sebadoh. Lou Barlow finally got the girl that he pined for, wrote albums worth of songs for, but do you remember Sebadoh's final album? Neither do I. Coincidence?
Luna's brand of minimal indie pop has always seemed fluffy and somewhat self-referential to me. I've taken to the odd album here and there, but Wareham's smarty-pants lyrics invariably strike me as patronizing. The irony just seems a little too thick. But on Days Of Our Nights Wareham provided some much needed depth to Luna's lyrical oeuvre. Wareham's odd phrasing still stood out amidst the darker melodies, but at least he had something substantive to say. Romantica moves in a completely different direction, but it works. The smarmy lyrics are back in full force, but the music is so crisp, clean, and catchy that it hardly matters at all.
I must admit I almost gave up on this album. The first few listens didn't stick, and I had Romantica pegged as a wash. Staying away from it for a week helped because suddenly, tonight, it finally clicked for me. The sprightly guitars literally jumped out of the speakers, and the melodies just felt exactly right. The riffs would certainly have to be good to allow for lines like this: "when candles light themselves/and the air turns creamy/why not take a photograph/you look so dreamy" ("Lovedust"). I can't think of too many lyricists who could get away unscathed with rhymes that trite, but Wareham has his whole tongue-in-cheek shtick to fall back on. He went to Harvard, after all. So, since he knows better that means he did it on purpose, right? Regardless, the song is undeniably catchy.
In addition to giving Luna's fans something pretty to look at on stage, new bassist Britta Phillips also adds spectacular backing vocals to the mix. She has a clean, cloyingly girlish voice- much like The Cardigans' Nina Persson, and it compliments Wareham's strange, nasally croon perfectly. "Weird And Woozy" is another infectious pop song, to which Phillips contributes a sexy counterpart to Wareham's bored detachment. Her bass lines hug the rhythms with an unexpected confidence and seductiveness too. She can play, sing, and looks good. What more can you ask for in a bassist?
The laid back dreamy anthem "Black Postcards" recalls the effortlessly lighthearted pop of the band's classic album, Bewitched. Wareham's voice has a strange allure the way he half-whispers his vocals. "Black Champagne" has a similarly breezy quality. It sounds immediately familiar, as the words flow out of Wareham's mouth. The newly added keyboards are subtle but provide depth and density to Luna's previously fragile sound. "Renee Is Crying" shuffles by like the band's early single "Slash Your Tires", except the production is much warmer and vibrant thanks to engineer David Fridmann (Weezer, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips).
"Mermaid Eyes" is a sultry duet between Wareham and Phillips. It's a nod to 1950's rock and roll ballads- string climax an all, and Phillips sings like an angel on it. "1995" is a surprise rocker with fuzzy guitars and propulsive drumming. Wareham sounds like a wimp even when he's angry, but his guitar gets his point across just fine. The sweeping melodies of "Rememories" have the same dramatic effect as anything by Low or Opal. It's quite possibly Wareham's finest song. He pins his brittle voice against a flowing, minor-keyed chorus, and it's gorgeous. The title track unfurls slowly as well but without the same dramatic effect. It's a woozy, engrossing song, though, that caps the album perfectly. Loose chords, laid back drumming, and Wareham's quirky delivery: "How can I know what I think 'til I see what I say?"
With Romantica as the evidence, Dean Wareham might be the exception to the rule that happiness begets bad art. Luna's had a rough ride over the years: bad record deals, line-up changes, corporate red tape, delayed releases, but Romantica reveals not a trace of bitterness or hardened heart. In fact, it champions just the opposite with a collection of vibrant, well-crafted, and sensitive songs. Dean Wareham has never sounded so energetic. Luna's second wind may prove to be stronger than its first.