The B-Side of the Moon

"Sweet Child o' Mine" meets "Sweet Jane": (left to right) Lee Wall, Dean Wareham, Sean Eden, and Justin Harwood of Luna

No one could have claimed to be surprised when Luna was dropped from Elektra Records a month before their latest album, The Days of Our Nights, was scheduled for release. Right now guitar bands with middling sales seldom receive any chance at building the kind of audience that satisfies major-label accountants. Why should Luna, who sold around 50,000 units apiece of their first four albums, be any different? So upon Elektra's merger with EastWest Records this spring, the band's termination from the label's roster was all but inevitable.

What's ironic about this decision is that The Days of Our Nights, which Sire subsidiary Jericho Records issued last week, contained the most promising single in the band's history, a cover of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child o' Mine" that could quite possibly have recouped the band's previous losses for Elektra. (As if to prove the point, Sheryl Crow's successful remake of the same song this summer registered significant airplay.) The New York quartet's audacious reinterpretation of Axl Rose's archetypal metal anthem as a twilit ballad is gorgeous enough to convert listeners skeptical of either the song's originators or its new owners.

"'Sweet Child' started as a joke," Luna vocalist Dean Wareham explains over the phone from his New York apartment, on the eve of a tour that will bring the band to Minneapolis on Monday night. "But it ended up not being one." That's exactly how this intended B-side sounds: As guitarist Sean Eden gingerly picks out the formerly wailing lead and Wareham wispily croons the opening lines, one almost expects a blast of distortion or a sarcastic curl in his voice to give the game away. It never happens. Instead, the band performs the song completely straight, underplaying the original's power riffs and vocal histrionics and completely excising its melodramatic "Where do we go now?" coda.

Wareham seems uneasy with the attention "Sweet Child" has gotten. "That's a scary thing, isn't it?" he says of the song's popularity among longtime Luna fans. "People like it too much. I think we're not going to play it live." And this hauteur--making a listener-friendly record and then getting snooty about people actually liking it--suits Wareham, who has long cultivated a cool, somewhat remote musical persona. In his earlier band, the influential late-Eighties trio Galaxie 500, his strained vocals and wending guitar work sometimes sounded like a musical missive from someone suffering a detachment disorder.

In the case of Luna, formed in 1992 with former Chills bassist Justin Harwood and ex-Feelies drummer Stanley Demeski, Wareham seemed to snap to attention. His vocals took on an urbane tone, and his guitar playing shed its aimlessness, becoming simultaneously sharper and more relaxed. The new tunes got under your skin and stayed there, while the lyrics found Wareham turning his gaze out toward a world he now regarded with detached amusement. "You can never give the finger to the blind," the band's debut album, Lunapark, begins, before going on to sing the praises of anesthesia and tire-slashing.

Another difference between Wareham's two main projects (he also occasionally records with wife Claudia Silver as Cagney and Lacee) is that where Galaxie 500 took much of its inspiration from the shambling drones of the Velvet Underground, Luna is more reminiscent of Television, particularly on 1995's Penthouse, one of the most perfectly sculpted guitar albums of the Nineties. Television guitarists Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd communicated their love of night and the city with dueling, box-cutter-keen leads. While keeping a similar song architecture, Wareham and Eden, who joined Luna in 1994, feature a gauzier sound; they play with shade and cool rather than pure white light and white heat. The result is a dreamier effect--even when Verlaine himself takes a solo on the Penthouse highlight, "23 Minutes in Brussels."

If The Days of Our Nights is less hypnotic than Penthouse, it makes up for it in attitude. This is drummer Lee Wall's second album with the band (he replaced the tour-reluctant Demeski in 1997), and he adds a push and bounce to the band's atmospheric hooks. And Wareham's already eccentric lyrics have grown increasingly bizarre: Check new tunes like the stalker's love song "Dear Diary," or sci-fi scenarios like "Math Wiz" ("I'd hate to be you when that day comes/The look on your face will be perfect") and "Four Thousand Days" ("Listeners of the future/Come on and help me quick").

"I don't write about my life anymore," says Wareham of his newly fictive bent. "It's too dull. If I was somebody like Woody Allen, I'd have more to write about."

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