When writing about retrospective compilations, it is common to make judgments about the material which has been chosen—judgments as to whether or not the songs which have been dubbed representative are truly representative. And, aside from such concerns, it is perfectly normal for the reviewer to take issue with the choices made for purely personal reasons. Perhaps the song that he was listening to during the anti-climax of his first lay has been neglected, or perhaps the song which she sang in the shower every day during that first year of living in New York. This tends to be the case when the person reviewing the album has long cultivated a relationship with the music in question. Accordingly, this will not be that kind of critique.
Luna lived its entire life at the periphery of my consciousness. So far as I can recall, I didn’t hear one of their songs until the day this disc began to spin in my notebook. Depending on your perspective, this is either a good thing or a bad thing; not my having never heard Luna until the past week (a question I will come to later), but the fact that I am writing about the greatest hits album of a band I’d never heard until after its dissolution. Note: I had heard of Luna from various friends and, obviously, unpersuasive admirers writing for publications both terrestrial and cyber. In any case, I have come to think of this as a good thing. If you already love, loathe or are left cold by Luna, you probably have little use for this collection or anything written about it. However, for those of you in a situation similar to my own, what better than to have someone in the same situation verbalize some of his impressions, thus enabling you to make the decision at hand. Is Luna to be left dangling in the grey concourse at the threshold of your mind? Or are they to be squeezed in among the other stately monuments to posterity which lie therein?
Impression One: Luna is an easy band to like. In fact, there is nothing about them that I don’t like to this point, granted these are allegedly representative of the band’s best work. The soporific guitars, Dean Wareham’s winsome vocals and droll lyrics, the nods to influences like The Velvet Underground and Television and the way they complement the band’s ’90s indie sensibility. Tom Verlaine (“Moon Palace” and “23 Minutes in Brussels”) and Sterling Morrison (“Friendly Advice”) even play on some of the album’s best tracks from Luna’s third, and most represented here, album, Penthouse. These are not the kind of collaborations that sound good in theory but leave the listener in an anti-nostalgic fit—they are attractive songs, made slightly more so by the involvement of members of two of the most enduring and iconoclastic bands of the last fifty years— two bands that also made their mark in New York City.
What most defines Luna is the cohesiveness of their songs. To be sure, there are some strange guitar sounds that get around in these tunes, but they always seem to fit the particular character of the lyrics and the rhythm. Nothing tends to seem excessive or out of place. “Moon Palace” is exemplary; with lyrics that drowse somewhere on the border between the prosaic and the revelatory (“It’s hard to think straight when you’re feeling so great, only want to get out of your head“); it moves from a modest acoustic beginning, through the vapor of `witchy’ guitars, beyond the charisma of its chorus and into unforeseen group “meow meow” harmony vocals. Who foresees “meow meow” vocals? In any case, they are a bewitching bit of strangeness. “California (All the Way)” asks the important questions, “Why can’t we smile just like we used to?” and “Why has my sympathy turned to malice?“, Wareham concluding that it doesn’t matter anymore—also notable is the line “If you’re going to read your poetry out loud to me, I’ll have to show you to the door.” “Anesthesia” opens with a guitar line reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain, circa Darklands, and “Friendly Advice” delivers on the promise of Sterling Morrison’s presence, more Loaded era Velvets than anything else, full of open space and guitar-driven fervor. (We all loathe comparisons, but they are apt here, I promise.)
As for the rest of the album, all the Penthouse tracks stand out (“Sideshow by the Seashore” and “Lost in Space” particularly), as does “Superfreaky Memories,” not only for it’s title and romantic imagery of drug abuse on the sly, but also for its catchy drums and the warming presence of a cello. “23 Minutes in Brussels” drives things to a close, churning forward on a “Sister Ray”-ish guitar riff and ending with the spacey leads, which are one of Luna’s signatures. And in the end, I submit that one feels very satisfied with The Best of Luna, perhaps slightly down at heel over their disbandment, but nonetheless thankful to Rhino Records for having the gumption to release this record.
Galaxie 500 – Portable Galaxie 500
Yo La Tengo – Prisoners of Love
Velvet Underground – Peel Slowly and See