Looking back at the last album from the New York band’s classic lineup
Moving on from membership in a groundbreaking and legendary band is a tall order.
Paul McCartney’s Wings, though successful in their time, never sparked the public imagination like The Beatles did. Dave Grohl of Nirvana only achieved later renown by recalibrating his music towards stadium-ready generic rock with Foo Fighters.
The weight of an amazing and life-changing band surely seems like an albatross to those on the inside, once said bands have run their course. It’s a position few would want to be in, perhaps as lonely as the disbanding itself, and the number of players who’ve gone on to even equal these past accomplishments, let alone top them, is small.
Let us consider the miracle of Luna then, who have proven with time to be just as crucial and inspirational listening as the band that bore them, Galaxie 500. That band was a monument to accidental genius, a few bored college friends in Cambridge crafting their own off-kilter approach to dream-pop and Velvets swoon, with surprisingly popular and influential results.
Following a notoriously acrimonious break-up, it truly was an open question where the three former members of Galaxie would go next, if anywhere. Plenty of hallmark bands of indie’s initial wave would fizzle out and see their members retreating into the anonymity of jobs, families, children, normal life. They’d tuck away their fond touring and recording memories to someday show the grandkids, and every so often wonder what might’ve been and sigh. But perhaps it should’ve always been evident that caterwauling Galaxie frontman Dean Wareham was a massive talent with much more to offer.
Returning to his childhood home of New York, Wareham assembled a crack team of collaborators to form Luna. Bassist Justin Harwood arrived via New Zealanders The Chills, and drummer Stanley Demeski from New Jersey indie-pop standbys The Feelies. In 1992, they released their first full-length, Lunapark, elaborating on the Galaxie 500 template with shoegaze textures and ambient drift.
By 1994’s Bewitched, they’d added a singular guitar presence in Sean Eden, a figure who would greatly shape the band’s sonic path for the remainder of their career. Clearly invigorated, 1994’s Bewitched showcased tighter, focused songwriting while maintaining the cosmic sense of weightlessness that had become Luna’s trademark. Luna was both aesthetically of a piece with similar-minded ensembles like Stereolab and Yo La Tengo, yet somehow entirely, fantastically inimitable.
1995’s Penthouse proved to be a turning point in many ways, as it would be the final full-length release featuring the original Wareham / Eden / Harwood / Demeski line-up. It’s hard not to read the sense of an era ending in the album’s eleven bittersweet, wistful tracks, even in the half-serious Serge Gainsbourg cover “Bonnie and Clyde” that closes out the collection. In fact, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier guests on vocals there, and elsewhere Tom Verlaine of Television contributes his usual guitar majesty to “Moon Palace” and “23 Minutes In Brussels”. The former is the most “Galaxie-like” song on the album, though infused with a bit of Byrdsian jangle and Spacemen 3 skronk emerging between a catchy Wareham refrain that sounds straight-up like he’s meowing. The latter cruises past on vaguely-roughhousing guitars and pure menace in a way no Galaxie song ever dared. The duality between these songs indicate the prevalent mood throughout Penthouse nicely; you’re half-haunted by your shimmering and now-mythical past, but freedom has you giddy and ascendant now.
Elsewhere on Penthouse, songs continue to lazily unspool, languidly brilliant but unhurried about the whole affair, thanks. Opener ‘Chinatown’ could slip into the middle of Loaded’s tracklist and feel right at home, while “Sideshow By The Seashore” indulges in some epic rock tremolo-bends while never raising the volume to a level that distracts from the tune’s warm-hearted core. Perhaps the set’s best pure pop moment, “Lost In Space”, is coy subversion of pop instincts, switching between an anthemic and time-worn chord progression in the chorus to an edgier one, back and forth again in delirious fashion. Its still a breath-taking moment after twenty-five years, a risky move that pays off in unexpected indie sweetness and dreamy mystery. By the time we reach the spirited fuzz workout of “Hedgehog”, Penthouse has said much, both sonically and lyrically, about the concept of rootlessness, of wandering adrift, and it’s an appropriate close to the band’s first, brilliant era.
Not that Luna’s story was told and filed away just yet. Wareham would eventually recruit future wife Britta Phillips, formerly of NYC shoegazers The Belltower and the voice of Jem on cartoon series Jem And The Holograms, to replace Harwood on bass, and this lineup would go on to release further high watermarks for Luna, including the breathtaking Romantica. Luna would dissolve in 2005 but reform on a casual, occasional basis in 2015, and Wareham and Phillips would continue to collaborate as Dean & Britta in perpetuity. Galaxie 500’s looming lineage may have been understandably daunting at the outset of Luna, and perhaps none of Wareham’s ensuing projects will ever be able to make anyone say “Galaxie who?”
But with releases like Penthouse, he ensured that there was room on the shelf of his personal library for Luna, as well.