Primer #5 - Luna

The Primer is a semi-regular column wherein contributors compile a 60 minute playlist of a band near and dear to their heart. Using personal listening anecdotes, notes about specific tracks and a brief overview of each artist, The Primer is both a way for our contributors to trace their musical genealogy and for our readers to gain a new perspective on an artist they may have missed or dismissed.

In this edition, Wax & Wane founder Matt Carlson shares his love for Luna, and how it made him a bigger fan of The Velvet Underground.

luna.jpg

When Dean Wareham announced his plan to disband Galaxie 500 in 1991, it seemed like a terrible idea destined to backfire. The successful and critically acclaimed trio had released three incredibly well received LPs - each one selling more than the last. College radio and John Peel's support in the UK and Europe had made them a well-known touring act and they'd even garnered praise from other indie-rock luminaries like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The Galaxie 500 star seemed very much on the rise and Wareham pulled the plug at a moment's notice.

From nearly the moment that Galaxie 500 was dispatched to the annals of history, Dean Wareham managed to cobble together another band called Luna. He also became a better songwriter, a superior guitar player and created a catalog far greater than the act for which he gained his first attention. While most musicians are destined for their follow-up endeavors to be the footnotes of their career, Wareham built a new sound that became the defining characteristic of his musical legacy.

I discovered Luna shortly after Lunapark, their debut LP was released in the late summer of 1992. I had been a casual fan of Galaxie 500 and while I am sure I was aware of their break-up, I picked up a copy of Lunapark primarily on a whim and a positive review I'd read in the English music rag New Musical Express. I was immediately drawn to the concise songwriting, the economy of the guitar lines and the playful quality of many of Wareham's lyrical choices.

While many musical acts had helped influence the Luna sound, there was of course one band whose stamp stood out above the others - The Velvet Underground. Luna's rhythmic sensibilities and deft,  chimey guitars owed a great debt to the Velvets even if Wareham's lyrics were far more innocuous and less ambitious than those of Lou Reed's. In 1993, The Velvet Underground embarked on a reunion tour and invited Luna along to fill the opening slot. In a moment of musical kismet, I was just on the path to loving and appreciating the Velvets and their kinship with Luna - one of my new favorites - helped to expedite the process. 

In short order, Luna would become one of my favorite bands during the 90's. The string of their first four full lengths: Lunapark (1992) Bewitched (1994), Penthouse (1995) and Pup Tent (1997) is, for me, on par with some of the great bands of the college rock era.

While the remainder of Luna's output would never match the quartet of very fine records they cranked out in the mid-90's they did continue to make very solid music right up until Wareham announced their split in 2005. This time around, Wareham called it a day after more than a decade of exhausting tours, fledgling sales and an indie-rock glass ceiling that Luna could never fully punch their way through.

The band's final tour is captured quite beautifully in the documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me where you see a group of friends play their final set of shows together and figure out what to do with the rest of their working lives. It is a marvelous document of a working band at a time when the music industry is undergoing an enormous financial shift. It is also a terrific record of a very fine band allowing itself a victory lap, even if the crowd there to witness it was just a fraction of what they deserved.

1.) Chinatown (From 1994's 'Penthouse')

pentouhse.jpg

This is a fabulous example of how wonderfully the guitars of Wareham and Sean Eden meld together to create a melodic soundscape on which Luna builds their songs. Also a reminder that great guitar playing need not always be virtuosic soloing and arena rock stage moves. Lyrically the song is a lively romp that follows the antics of a vacuous young playboy.


2.) I Can't Wait (From 1992's 'Lunapark')

lunapark.jpg

A jangly and simple song that draws heavily on the influence of The Velvet Underground. The tom heavy drum part, the strutting strum of the rhythm guitar and the almost sloppy lead lines ooze VU charm. This is an early signal that Luna were becoming greater than the sum of its' parts and influences.


3.) California (All The Way) (From 1994's 'Bewitched)

bewitched.jpg

I've always loved the lyrical question in the chorus, "Why has my sympathy now turned to malice?" followed with the self evident answer "It doesn't matter anymore". "California" is also rife with refined solos that are interesting, but never ostentatious. The moment he realizes that " . . .  I'm living like a trucker does, altho0ugh I haven't got the belly . . ." is a charming narrative spot in the track.


4.) 23 Minutes In Brussels (From 1995's 'Penthouse')

penthouse.jpg

Luna were always a great live band and "23 Minutes In Brussels" might as well be their "Freebird". With it's meandering guitar lines and pulsing backbeat, the song seems designed for live vamps and ragged solos. Pay close attention to the gorgeous economy of that bass line. It makes everything else around it click.


5.) Bobby Peru (From 1997's 'Pup Tent')

pup_tent.jpg

The twin guitars play off each other once again and are beautifully augmented by the slightest hint of a sitar part. The "S is for Sorry" chorus that is punctuated with a plea for forgiveness and the admonition of not keeping secrets from yourself is some of Wareham's more stealthily moving lyrical work. The solo and bridge section on this are particularly lovely as well.


6.) Time To Quit (From 1992's 'Lunapark')

lunapark.jpg

A spritely pop song that substitutes a rhythmic solo for a chorus. The chugging of jangly guitars and repetitive solo in the second half of the song feel like youth busting through an open window.


7.) Tiger Lily (From 1994's 'Bewitched')

bewitched.jpg

While Penthouse is probably Luna's best effort and the record that new listeners should start with, Bewitched is the album that had me hooked. I can clearly recall prosthelytizing this album to my circle of friends based almost solely on the virtues of this one little song.


8.) Sideshow By The Seashore (From 1995's 'Penthouse')

Penthouse.jpg

So many of Luna's songs start with an economic, yet dynamic guitar riff. This one is especially terrific. The vamp in the outro is also  stellar. Again, check that bass line.


9.) This Time Around (From 1994's 'Bewitched')

bewitched.jpg

Incredibly catchy pop songcraft can never happen too frequently. On this one, Wareham delivers an instantly appealing number with a tight and restrained rhythm section that is sure to have you singing it for the rest of your day.


10.) Ihop (From 1997's 'Pup Tent')

Pup_Tent,jpg

I'll be candid, I have no idea what the hell this song is about lyrically. It opens with the call for a doctor in the House of Pancakes. There is mention of a "weekly meeting of anonymous cads", and the notion that our protagonist "Ain't no Cary Grant, but then again who is"? Yet, the entire effort is so damned endearing - if non-sensical - and the stretched out instrumental sections with e-bowed guitar and rolling bass parts is a musical treat.


11.) Smile (From 1992's'Lunapark')

lunapark.jpg

Epic and virtuosic guitar solos have never really done much for me. While I do enjoy a good guitar wail, a solo should enhance the song, not become some masturbatory interlude that dominates it. "Smile" is yet another example of Wareham as a more than competent guitar player who can play interesting lines in ways that fit within the context of the song and help to elevate it, not obliterate it.


12.) That's What You Always Say (From 1993's 'Slide' EP)

slide_p.jpg

Luna were a band that had a special talent for playing great cover songs. Like any great interpreter, they always made the song their own, regardless of the source material - instead of just performing a carbon copy rendition of a song. On "That's What You Always Say" they take a 1982 garage/post-punk number by The Dream Syndicate and turn it into full on rock n' roll that sounds like it could easily be a hit.


13.) Rhythm King (From 1995's 'Penthouse')

penthouse.jpg

The descending guitar line on this one is all takes for a minor love affair to occur between the listener and the band. There's a laid back pop ease here that seems almost effortless. 


14.) Beggar's Bliss (From 1997's 'Pup Tent')

pup_tent.jpg

This whole thing feels so damned warm. It's the musical equivalent of a pair of slippers and a sweater in the cold, cold winter. Slip inside and get cozy.


15.) Sweet Child Of Mine (From 1999's 'The Days Of Our Nights')

daysofournights.jpg

Yep, it's the song you think it is. Luna prove once again that they can take nearly any song and make it completely their own.