Luna, Romantica, Jetset Records 2002
“It’s hard to keep a band together for ten years and not expect some turmoil, not to mention a few unfortunate business situations,” muses Dean Wareham, frontman and founder of the dreamy New York guitar band, Luna. Maybe the successful release of their seventh full-length LP, Romantica, has allowed Wareham to feel at ease with the sticky situations plaguing the band for the last few years. Immediately following the 1999 completion of more profitable acts like Better Than Ezra and Natalie Merchant, and shortly after they moved over to Jericho, the label closed its doors, leaving the band out in the cold yet again. Add the amicable departure of co-founder and bassist Justin Harwood in 2000, and it might spell doom for any other group—but not Luna. In fact, the band has instead emerged no worse for the wear and solid as ever.
Of course, landing on their feet involved a certain amount of risk. Luna ambitiously recorded Romantica before they actually secured a label, paying for the studio with their own money. “I knew someone would buy it,” Wareham shrugs. And after a frustrating process of shopping around, they inked the deal with indie label Jetset Records when the album was finished. For a small, critically acclaimed but commercially tepid band like Luna, being dumped by a corporate giant like Elektra was probably a blessing in disguise. Moving to a smaller outfit means better treatment, and since Luna is one of their more profitable acts, Jetset treats them well. Thanks to Jetset’s energy, Romantica was more successful in its first week of release than any of their previous albums.
This reward is well deserved, as the album is one of their most honest works to date. Light, energetic loops of Sean Eden’s guitar are mingled with lines full of booze and regrets. This melancholy cocktail has long been the Luna recipe, but the lyrics of Romantica are more poignant and emotional than ever. Songs like “Black Champagne” and “Romantica” sound sadly weary, while “Black Postcards” laments:
All the things I wanted for/ Someone else took them/ Lonely in a new shirt/ Lonely watching baseball/ If I had to do it all again/ I wouldn’t/ throw it all away.
Rife with witty irony, the songwriter Wareham’s lyrics often oscillate from consciously clever to downright silly. One need only recall the first track of 1997’s Pup Tent, when Wareham asks: “Is there a doctor in the house/ In the House of Pancakes?/ You’ve got a banana split/ personality.” The food metaphors surface again in “Romantica” as the title song states: “I’m in a jam/ You’re in a pickle/ We’re in a stew.” With names like “Black Champagne” and “Swedish Fish,” one wonders whether the songwriter gleaned his inspiration from Bon Appetit magazine or from the hungry months of surviving without a label.
Wareham insists the edible entendres emerged by chance rather than fixation. “It’s too obvious to say ‘The sky is blue.’ It’s more interesting to describe a flavor. Poetry is in the little things we can all relate to.” For him, writing the lyrics is the most difficult part of the process. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. I write the melodies first and then sketch out phrases and sentences I like and cut and paste them.” But the process is not haphazard—it’s merely a way to stimulate creativity—similar to Bob Dylan’s method of surrounding himself with newspapers to create the folk lyrics that shaped a generation.
Beyond the food references, the album is also steeped in romance, as one might expect from its name. Smooth guitar melodies are further sweetened in “Lovedust” with the infectious chorus about “a million, a billion, a trillion starts.” But love turns sour in the exquisite “Mermaid Eyes,” as Wareham’s duet with honey-voiced bassist Britta Phillips (formerly of Ultrababyfat) creates one of the most sentimental and mesmerizing songs on the LP. Phillips lends her willowy vocals to various layers of Romantica, which proves yet another significant development for the album.
In live performances, Luna is an incredibly tight band, yet Romantica gives the impression of being a little less meticulous and more relaxed than their other works. Maybe it’s the length of the songs, some of which barely scrape three minutes, or the influence of new producer, Gene Holder, who has previously worked with Yo La Tengo and Cowboy Mouth. Wareham agrees, “Gene was a very laid back producer. He didn’t really tell us what to do. He just let us be who we are.” They also recorded the songs in bits and pieces, rather than all at once, which can be stressful for any band. This sense of freedom is evident in their approach.
Perhaps the album’s cheesy souvenir cigarette lighter with a tropical scene airbrushed on the side reveals Luna’s resolve to keep things flowing as smoothly as their melodies. Yet, one can’t help but consider the irony of a rainbow-colored romanticized scene on something as blandly functional as a lighter. Perhaps it’s actually fitting: underneath the dreamy sounds and pretty phrases of Romantica, Luna is still a dependable rock band with a lot of fuel left.
Sandra Nygaard is a Brooklyn-based writer.