Despite that I'm a great admirer of guitar-based pop music, I've always found dream-pop and shoegazing and the like to be a bit, how shall I say it . . . dull. While I loved latter-period albums from the Boo Radleys and Lush, I never could get into their dreamier, more abstract earlier works (in the case of the Boos, I even had trouble grasping a good deal of their Giant Steps, an album considered brilliant by many). So I approached the new Luna release, Romantica, with trepidation: would this be a collection of laid-back, dreamy pop, or a collection of complacent, droning non-songs?
Very thankfully it's the former. This is dream-pop that almost anyone could easily enjoy, with hooks, melodies, and instrumentation that is clean and punchy enough to stand out, but still maintains the laid-back atmosphere that makes this type of guitar-pop what it is. A kind of hazy satisfaction is settled over each of the disc's 12 tracks, making each number -- from the more direct, radio-ready tracks to the spacier, more experimental tunes -- gel into an excellent cohesive whole.
It's obvious that Luna's many lineup changes and record label shifts haven't hurt them much. But in reality, it's kind of amazing that they've survived as long as they have: since springing from the ashes of Galaxie 500 in the early 1990s, they've pumped out five studio albums and become critical darlings on the college rock circuit. But unlike bands of similar stature (Pavement springs to mind), they never crossed over to any larger audience. Luna have always been also-rans of the CMJ crowd. They were always the bridesmaids, never the brides.
And sadly, it's unlikely that Romantica is going to change that. Coming several years after being unceremoniously dropped by Elektra and a solid decade after their debut, Luna may be too far along in their career to suddenly become the toast of the independent rock world. But that doesn't mean that they can't put out a solid, thoroughly pleasing and engaging record that is certain to delight the fans who continue to pay attention.
The album's brightest moment comes in the opening track, the amazingly happy "Lovedust". It's the kind of song that would fit right in as the optimistic touch to a movie soundtrack, the perfect slice of guitar-pop that is appealing to just about every twenty-something in the world. And all of this is formed on a fairly simple lyrical and musical hook (the chorus chirps "What did I see / A million / A billion / A trillion stars"). And that simplicity is part of what makes it such a pleasant piece of dreamy guitar pop.
And while it is true that the rest of the album lacks of the focus of "Lovedust", there are plenty more wonderful moments. "Black Postcards" employs a hefty string section, "Swedish Fish" (It's hard not to love that title) and "Dizzy" are fairly straight-forward folk-pop, and the band also throws in a fairly pointed rocker in the form of "1995". Complete with more forceful, hard-hitting guitar riffs, the song is the most up-tempo moment on the album, but that's only one of the reasons it stands out. Like all the best moments on the album, it's driven by a catchy chorus and Dean Wareham's vaguely Lou Reed-esque lead vocals. But any trace of an edge on Wareham's lazy drawl is tempered by the more ethereal female background vocals. Wareham, along with second guitarist Sean Eden, also contribute tight, dreamy rhythm guitar riffs on nearly every song, while the lead guitar occasionally occupies the darker sonic spaces in each song. It's the subtle sonic contrast that makes these moments so engaging: the differences between the sweet and sour moments in the vocals and guitar licks give each of these songs a foundation. The end result is a tasty confection for the ears.
And that shouldn't come as a major surprise, since Gene Holder (of dB's fame, though he's produced for Cowboy Mouth, Pylon, Yo La Tengo and others) is twisting the knobs here. His production is clean but not shiny. Much like his old band, the record retains a tidy sound without sounding too calculated. He doesn't sand the edges off the corners of the guitars or vocals, even if he does reel in the performances enough to be succinct and engaging.
So even if Romantica turns out to be no more than another entry into the crowded oeuvre of an indie pop band, it's at least a very worthwhile entry. The disc's cover art-a cigarette lighter with a hazy tropical beach scene airbrushed on the side-says it best: Romantica is hazy fun with a slightly collegiate, slightly gritty side. And the grit is just enough to be interesting, but not enough to obscure its own virtues.