Indie rock darlings Luna play final show tonight

by Caroline McKenzie | 2/28/05 6:00am

During my senior year in high school, much of my free time was spent working in my hometown's independent video shop. Short of a few institutionalized rules, employees of the shop were free to play their choice of videos or CDs on the store DVD player. On those occasions when beautiful weather outside coincided with my dominance of the remote control inside the shop, a promo copy of Luna's "Romantica" that had been nabbed from the music store next door was often designated the album of the day.

Anybody who knows Luna knows what I'm talking about. Although Luna comes straight out of New York, any Luna album is pervaded by a quiet warmth that seems far more like San Francisco than the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. It's not surprising that Luna has random, assorted production and musical ties to Mercury Rev -- although Luna is not at as psychedelic and is rooted firmly in guitar soft-rock, the songs have a similar ethereal and dream-like quality. Perhaps my favorite adjective for Luna is (rather ironically) sunny, as it encapsulates the soft-glow and catchiness that the band so brilliantly and consistently produces.

Although Luna never achieved massive success, they, similarly to bands like Yo La Tengo and Low, remain indie darlings, recipients of critical acclaim and occasional members of the CMJ lists. Until this weekend, that is, because Luna, which formed in 1991, is now calling it quits. Tonight is Luna's last live show ever, and it is to be played in New York City's Bowery Ballroom. Singer Dean Wareham's ten reasons for quitting as posted on Luna's website include "8. This is what bands do (with a few exceptions like R.E.M. and Metallica, and the Rolling Stones). Those bands, however, are multi-billion dollar corporations. You don't break that up unless the government forces you to."

So, why bother writing about Luna? The Dartmouth Arts section has taken the opportunity on several occasions this term to profile up-and-coming bands playing in the area so that readers might have the chance to find out about these acts. But Luna is, in a way, up-and-going, and even if desire urged you to drive the four hours and change to New York City tonight, the concert is sold out.

But as much as fans of Luna are regretting tonight's inevitable end of the band, it's those music fans who never knew of Luna that are really unfortunate. As Wareham (who formerly played with Galaxie 500 before founding Luna) acknowledges, Luna is decidedly not a major cultural force like Metallica, R.E.M. or the Stones -- but nonetheless they are an important band of the 1990s and their music is amazingly timeless. With their touring and musical outputs officially ending, the only way that they can garner new fans is by word-of-mouth praise. And thus it shall be given.

The band's most recent release, "Rendezvous," hit stores this past October. Although "Rendezvous" was, from the outset, designated to be Luna's final album before the group's dissolution, it is antithetical to the idea of "going out with a bang." Perhaps this is appropriate considering Luna's aesthetics always remained simple and assuredly low-fi, even in the face of the recent return of loud and brash garage rock.

The album moves at its own quiet, unrushed pace, opening with "Malibu Lovenest." The chorus of the opening track showcases both Wareham's uniquely quirky lyrics (like "You're in a jam / I'm in a pickle / We're in a stew" on the later title track) and ability to use words with odd rhythmic structures to his advantage. In these manners, Wareham's influences are often traced back to Lou Reed and this attribution is further proven by the second track "Cindy Tastes Like Barbecue" and the just as peculiarly titled, "Hotel Bambi."

But perhaps the standout track is the energetic half-love song, "Astronaut." The underlying bass rifts move at a clip, and Wareham's muted vocals proceed with absolute sincerity and are supported by bassist Britta Philips' own voice in the second half of the song (it should be mentioned for all trivia hounds that Philips was the singing voice of Jem in the awesome '80s cartoon of the same name). But Wareham's words are pure magic. He manages to follow up absolutely befuddling lyrics like, "I wanna plug you in / I wanna get you things / Send you a pentagram / Feed you diazepam" with assured and blunt sweetness in lines like, "I wanna bend your spoons and make your silver shine."

"Romantica" is Luna's strongest album, with witty pop tracks like "Dizzy" and "Lovedust," the album's opener. "Romantica" is the first album after Philips joined the band, and although she doesn't alter the signature Luna sound, her additions in bass and vocals (like on "Mermaid Eyes") are more than welcomed. But again it is Wareham's incessantly clever lyrics that are constantly the stand-out feature. Their 1994 release "Bewitched" is almost as good as "Romantica," that shines with the second track, "Tiger Lily," which finds Wareham's vocals reaching to more melodic higher octaves, as its strong point.

"Motel Bambi" poses the question, "Where has all the sunshine gone?" Unfortunately, after tonight, that will remain an appropriate question. But though the sun has set and Luna is now gone, the songs still shine on.