Live albums can put you “in the moment” of a stunning performance, or they can be astoundingly redundant, unnecessary recreations of superior studio recordings. Luna’s first live album, Live, is one of the former, and thus is perfect not only for diehard Luna concertgoers or for Luna fans who have yet to see them play live, but also for the uninitiated who want to get a taste of Luna’s music.
The cover art of the quintessential Luna album, 1995’s Penthouse, consists of black-and-white photographs of New York City skyscrapers at night. To me, those pictures have always been the perfect summary of the mood of Luna’s music. Their songs evoke both the dreamy, absurdly quiet nature of late nights/early mornings and the hectic yet mysterious quality of the biggest cities. Lead singer Dean Wareham sings of late-night taxi rides, after hours bars and suspicious strangers, while the rest of the band helps him lay down guitar-heavy surround-sound, like the Velvets stumbling onto a quiet groove.
On Live, their sound is both more choppy and more relaxed. On several songs they stretch out and improvise, and Wareham sings in a more casual, loose way throughout. The tracks are pulled from three shows, in New York City and Washington D.C. One is the band’s last show with bassist Justin Harwood, the others are their first with new bassist Britta Phillips, who also lends backing vocals to a few tracks and fills Stereolab vocalist Laetitia Sadier’s shoes on the band’s cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde”, which originally appeared on Penthouse.
With the documentation of the lineup change, it seems that the album could be a historical marking of a transitional period in Luna’s career. Yet musically they sound as Luna-like as ever. Plus the songs come from throughout their career, from their first and second LPs (“Anesthesia”, “Tiger Lily”, “Bewitched”, “Friendly Advice”) through their third and fourth ones (“Chinatown”, “Sideshow By the Seashore”, “23 Minutes in Brussels”, “Pup Tent”), to their latest studio album, the fine The Days of Our Nights (“Hello Little One”, “4000 Days”). They even stretch further back to Wareham’s roots on one track, a straightforward but beautiful version of Galaxie 500’s “Fourth of July”.
Luna encountered enough label troubles with their last album to drive them to the indie world; this release is on NYC’s Arena Rock Recordings. A release like this makes me cherish the fact that Luna is persistent in getting their music out one way or another. Their music sets a certain midnight mood like no one else’s. Live is both a perfect distillation of that mood and a great reminder of the wondrous songs they’ve released over the last decade or so.