Luna is to indie rock what Hal Hartley is to indie filmmaking: well established but no sellout, distinctive but not repetitive, mannered but heartwrenching. Definitely long-lived in a fickle scene. Both are quintessential New York City laced with a certain vague internationalism, and both solidified their aesthetic in the '80s (OK, Wareham was in Galaxie 500 then, but it was that sound he would develop in the much longer-lived Luna). Both are witty, yet both are menacing, with the resulting mixture a kind of ironic sincerity in the shape of a wry smile. Imagine the tremulous introduction of Bewitched's title track laid against Henry's entrance in the Hartley film Henry Fool. Radio static, jumbled, half-distinguishable voices; Simon sniffs the air, frowns; throbbing reverb, tender and expectant; Simon stoops, puts his ear to the pavement, and Dean Wareham's cracked tenor drops with him: "All of a sudden / The girl of my dreams / She never asks / She always screams." The pavement is throbbing too, and the guitar is shaking itself, giving off great drops of sound: "Do you see her face / In a puddle at my feet? / As I bend down / To kiss the street." And there's Our Protagonist striding over the horizon.
For all their preciousness, such moments are at best delicate and intricate and brutally moving. Luna's latest effort, an EP titled Close Cover Before Striking, is neither, I'm afraid. It's a solid and passably interesting piece of work by a band that long ago learned its niche.
Close Cover Before Striking is Luna's second studio offering since the bodacious Britta Phillips joined the band on bass, starting with 2002's full-length Romantica. It appears from reading the tour diary on Luna's website that Phillips and Wareham have more than a working relationship (though don't quote me on that) -- but if you can't Yoko 'em, join 'em, right? Actually Phillips seems to fit into Luna's sound really well, offering a touch of dreamy female vocals and more-than-competently-melodic bass. Besides, Phillips was the voice of Jem, from Jem and the Holograms!!! How cool is that???!
There's always something sort of lazy about Luna -- I suppose that a better writer might call it oneiric, given that "luna" -- the moon -- is the heavenly body that gave its name to both lunatics and hallucinations. Less etymologically speaking, Luna The Band tends to write songs with titles like "Lovedust", "Sleeping Pill", "Anesthesia" and -- inevitably -- Close Cover Before Striking's "Astronaut" and "New Haven Comet". Musically, Luna is the undisputed champion of reverb-heavy, melodic pop: I often think they are to blame for critics' abuse of the adjective "shimmering". Dean Wareham's vocals are sort of crackly and thin, which provides a nice contrast against the electric sheen backing him up; well-timed guitar flourishes and thick, full bass anchor the high and low ends, respectively, of a musical formula that's lasted 10 years.
Wareham's lyrics are smart and impressionistic enough to give the best songs a menacing edge. Consider the offhanded snarl in his voice as he delivers the lyric "I want to get you things / Send you a pentagram / Feed you diazepam". "Astronaut" is the EP's opener, and its high-energy strum and ethereal keyboards are classic Luna ("classic," I'm afraid, is another adjective often abused by people who write about Luna). Next comes a lackadaisical cover of the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on a Friend", in the grand Luna tradition of filling their EPs with covers-- remember their stunning version of Beat Happening's "Indian Summer"? That one's still a staple on the road. That they're now covering the Stones and not Beat Happening may be an indication that they're thinking about their own shelf life-- but no matter. Iowa's college radio station KRUI has already put the Luna version into heavy rotation.
I remember thinking last year at South by Southwest that something bad was happening to Luna, because they played so badly. I don't know why that show sucked, but I think it's pretty easy to suck at a huge, overpublicized "indie" music festival. Both Romantica and Close Cover Before Striking show a band that may not be growing at beanstalk pace, but which certainly isn't moving backwards or stagnating either. "Teenage Lighting" features a sort of slide guitar solo which, while still drenched in the trademark Luna reverb, adds texture and range to that sound. "Drunken Whistler"'s solo has a sort of space rock quality to it, and there's a marimba synth line that cracks me up, even as it seems fitting. By the time you get to "The Alibi", things are sounding almost classic rocky, until the Reckoning- era R.E.M. arpeggios kick in, along with the crazy sustain. "The Alibi" also has Wareham trying to "sing" a little more -- normally he less sings than shambles through most numbers, relying on the guitar for the melody -- but this song's lovely chorus proves he can hit those notes when he feels like it. "New Haven Comet"'s also got a sort of slidey guitar, as well as almost banjo-style picking, but nowhere does Luna seem to be jumping on the twang bandwagon (how could you be, singing about being "late for a date / on the way to New Haven"?).
It's a nice little bit of muted energy, this EP -- which begs an obvious reference to the album's title and packaging (it looks like a matchbook). Like the contained explosion of a struck match, this album rockets and streaks like comets through deep space -- which, if and only if you happen to be Luna, is almost well charted territory.