Dean Wareham does not have a powerful voice. His singing is in the Lou Reed conversational school, that dry braggadocio replaced by a modest shyness. He’s not an especially proficient guitarist, his sound built on textures more than notes. But as the brains behind Luna, Wareham took the restrictions of his vocal and electric instruments and built enough texture and atmosphere to make one of the great guitar albums of the 90s.
He had help with cameos from a punk guitar god of the 70s and roots that go back to one of the great guitar bands of the 80s. Luna’s dream-pop emerged from the sonic indulgences of Galaxie 500, whose sheets of guitar sound washed over you and stayed there, reliant on the kind of droning espoused by more than a few Velvet Underground-inspired bands who had atmosphere to spare but no lift-off.
When Wareham quit Galaxie 500 and formed Luna, he brought that guitar texture with him and eventually built songs worthy of his sound.
Wareham was born in New Zealand and raised in Sydney, Australia, and moved to New York with his parents in 1977. An album called Penthouse would seem to observe his adopted Gotham at a distance, but Wareham immerses himself in the city’s depths immediately with “Chinatown.” Onetime Feelies drummer Stan Demeski, who knows his way around a guitar band, introduces the track’s gently climbing riff, a walking line that suggests ambling through the city streets “in the tiny, tiny hours.” He may just be strolling through his neighborhood, but this neo-noir mood establishes the album’s movement through sound and geography.
The album takes a geographical jump on “Sideshow by the Seashore,” about the famed Coney Island attraction. The singer tries to catch mermaids’ attention during a storm and his voice may not turn their heads, but “Sideshow” features a gorgeous, bent riff that seems to mimic the rippling path of underwater sounds. At just under three and a quarter minutes, it’s the length of a perfect pop song, with a riff you wish could go on forever.
Tracks like “Moon Palace” and “23 Minutes in Brussels” are less perfect, but they give the band a chance to pay back heroes, as each features a guest solo from New York guitar hero Tom Verlaine. Lyrically, “Brussels” suits the Penthouse theme as a tale of getting stuck in a foreign city, poor things, but it has its musical roots in “Sister Ray,” its decadence punctuated by a Verlaine solo that calmly pierces its travelers’ lament.
The advantage of having a modest voice like Wareham’s is that even your scathing indictments come off as a kinder, gentler diss. “Lost in Space” seems directed at bands that trade in mood more than substance: “You heard it all before/ They said your case was tragic/ You heard it all before/ And now they say its magic.” Twenty years later, the song could still applies to hype covered bands.
“Freakin’ and Peakin’” officially ends the album with a Feelies-like guitar rave-up, but a fantastic hidden track steals the album. With a guest vocal from Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier, Penthouse ends with an essential cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde” that doesn’t make you miss Brigitte Bardot. If the track’s original version is a novelty song with attitude, Wareham and company Luna-fy it with a pulsing, minimalist violin riff and blistering guitar solo. Luna’s classic cover ran over the end credits of Olivier Assayas’ 1996 breakthrough film Irma Vep, a signature statement of ’90s indie cinema. The filmmaker recognized his kindred soul in this group that took its influences and limited chops to make its own unmistakable sound.
Luna went on for another decade of lineup changes, including Britta Phillips’ fateful arrival in 2000. As Dean and Britta, Wareham began making music with the onetime voice of Jem in 2003. Luna broke up in 2005 and Wareham and Phillips married a few years later, but the band couldn’t stay apart forever. Last year Luna announced a reunion tour, with U.S. dates coming this year. Any number of bands before and after Luna took their collective influences in similar and different directions, but at their best, Luna had their own voice, and used it to make magic.