Last year, former Galaxie 500 front man/Lunanite Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, also formerly of Luna, presented a series of shows that saw the duo performing in front of a selection of Andy Warhol’s screen tests of Factory notables. Wareham and Phillips were commissioned by the Warhol Museum and Pittsburg Cultural Trust to take on the task of scoring the tests, a grand opportunity for anyone in a Velvet Underground inspired indie band. On last count this constitutes 88% of all indie bands, ever. Not only are Wareham and Phillips exceedingly lucky, they are more capable than most of doing justice to the tests.
As the Wareham authored liner notes imply, the project was lovingly handled through the selection of 13 standout screen tests (13 because Warhol was given to screening the tests this way), to finding appropriate approaches for each test. A DVD of their efforts was released by Plexifilm last year, and now the musical side of the project is getting a two-disc release featuring the 13 screen test tracks with some impressive remixes thrown in for good measure. Although the level of professionalism applied to this project assures that certain tracks stand alone and need no visual accompaniment, it at times fails to escape the same fate of a successful movie score in places; i.e., certain songs are clearly enhanced when played up against their respective tests.
Thanks to the magic of YouTube, the experience provided by the 13 Most Beautiful DVD can be viewed by the even the thriftiest Dean & Britta fan. This exercise makes some songs cooler and others more intense. “Herringbone Tweed” is a repetitious instrumental groove on its own, but when placed in the context of Dennis Hopper’s screen test, it becomes downright lethal. Subdued at first, Hopper, who is vested in a herringbone tweed blazer, eventually appears to nod along to Wareham’s laid-back guitar lick. Likewise, Lou Reed’s soda-guzzling test, set to a Velvet Underground rarity called “Not a Young Man Anymore”, turns into the hippest, most reckless product placement for Coca-Cola ever.
“Ann Buchanan Theme”, when listened to alone, is a wistful wash of modulation, dreamy but fleeting despite its four-and-a-half-minute length. When played along with the screen test, emotions are strengthened as Buchanan stares straight into the camera and restrains from blinking until tears roll down her face. As Wareham points out in the liner notes, his guitar solo synchs up with a large tear dripping from Buchanan’s chin. Buchanan was more closely connected with the Beat poets than the Factory crowd, yet her test and the song it inspired Wareham and Phillips to use — an instrumental of a track called “Singer Sing” — arises as one of the most stirring on the album.
Contrasts are no better exemplified than when two very dissimilar tracks are chosen for two nearly identical Factory regulars. Edie Sedgwick is serenaded with “It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills”, a sad and dreamy ode to doomed beauties such as the ill-fated model, who appears beautiful yet vacant in her test. Ingrid Superstar, who bore a physical resemblance to Sedgwick and whom the liner notes attest could not have been more different in personality, gets a fun, jangly number from the Luna vaults called “Eyes in My Smoke” as her theme. Although Superstar met a similar fate to Sedgwick, Superstar’s screen test presents a fun, charming girl giving the finger as Wareham and Phillips sing surreal lines and New York landmarks to one another.
Oftentimes, the 13 Most Beautiful tracks that work best as standalones are the remixes. All of Sonic Boom’s contributions add an extra layer of spaciness, particularly on “Teenage Lightning (and Lonely Highways)” — a song for the archetypically handsome Paul America — where the fuzzed out zings and pings amplify the subject’s chemical dependency. Overall, however, watching the screen tests gives the same effect as listening to 13 Most Beautiful: it’s hard to imagine one without the other, a testament to how considered 13 Most Beautiful is. Perhaps more meaningful to fans of either Warhol or Wareham and Phillips, it is nonetheless to be respected as a true achievement.