Friday, September 5, 2008

Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham. L'Avventura (Jetset, 2003)

"You can cut my hair, you can fill my cup/ You can tell me lies, you can make it up/ We're gonna make it after all."

In addition to jazz, bourbon, and napalm, America invented cool. The current distillation of the concept arrived early in the second half of the 20th century, a mix of Miles Davis, James Dean, and heroin. Today, it's our number one export behind political instability and ill will. And even though he's originally from New Zealand, I always think of Dean Wareham as having a voice that embodies cool, specifically of the NYC variety. Wareham's laconic baritone is the sound of nonchalance and tossed-off elegance, all inspiration, no perspiration. He cops his style and limited vocal range directly from proto-hipster Lou Reed, and over the years has evolved from a spaced out Harvard student playing murky dream-pop into the picture of sophisticated (if a bit ghoulish, judging by recent photos) Gotham cool.

Wareham headed up Galaxie 500 from 1986 to 1991, and broke up the band after releasing three pretty good records. I like Galaxie 500 (you can buy all of their albums separately or in one box set) but they had a tendency to wrap decent melodies in a heavy layer of audio fog and wear the welcome out of good ideas through repetition. Listening to those guys is like having a boring fever dream. In 1992, after giving the heave-ho to Galaxie 500's rhythm section (who stayed together to form Damon and Naomi), Wareham put together Luna, a group which traded in Galaxie 500's sonic narcotics for a sharper, more polished, and way hookier sound owing a lot to the Velvet Underground and late-'70s downtown guitar gods Television. As if to drive home the point of their influences, Luna collaborated with both the Velvets' Sterling Morrison (on 1994's great Bewitched) and Television's Tom Verlaine (on 1995's even greater Penthouse -- seriously, if you haven't heard Penthouse, go buy it).

I loved Luna, even if they never really changed their sound or pushed any real boundaries. At their worst, they were pleasant, and at their best, they were awesome. Plus, they sounded like a warm bath, so comforting, so soothing. Perfect for chilling out or coming down. When Luna finally called it quits in 2005, I would have been a lot more bummed had Wareham not already started putting out records with Luna's final bassist, stone fox, and voice of the animated female rocker/superhero Jem (it's true; look it up), Britta Phillips. The duo's 2003 debut L'Avventura is an electro-poppy hit parade, full of sparkling melodies and lush arrangements, and it sounds like a Dean Wareham record.

L'Avventura is bright and shiny, which has a lot to do with fact that it was produced by Tony Visconti, who has worked with folks like T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Morrissey, and loads of others. He clearly knows what he's doing. Everything in its right place, so to speak, and it feels pretty good. Lots of strings, too, to class it up a bit. The vocals take center stage, and Wareham trades off singing duties with Phillips. She sounds sexy. Really, really sexy. And smoky. And a little tired, maybe, but really, really sexy all the same.

There are a lot of covers on this record, which I guess has become Wareham's thing. Luna did a version of "Sweet Child o' Mine" a few years back, making it sound like a Luna song, and that was ok. They did a version of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie and Clyde," too. So I guess Wareham fancies himself somewhat of an interpreter, which is fair, because he has a distinctive sound and leaves his mark on whatever he touches. Or maybe he's just running out of his own ideas. At any rate, he covers Madonna's "I Deserve It," making it a far better song, in my opinion. And he does a great version of the Silver Jews' "Random Rules," which is a bold move because "Random Rules" is one of the strongest tunes from a really strong band. But Wareham makes it his own, so hats off. He also does the Doors' "Indian Summer" here, which works mainly because Wareham sings in the same octave as Jim Morrison and otherwise nails the blissed-out/junksick vibe of the original. The best cover here (and an album highlight) is "Threw It Away," first recorded by some band called Angel Corpus Christi, who I've never heard. Anyway, this one gives Wareham a chance to show off his formidable guitar skills, which are, uh, formidable.

And between the covers, the originals on this album stand out.
Album opener "Night Nurse" sets the tone of the record right away: shimmery, dreamy, easy on the ears. My favorite song here by a wide margin is "Ginger Snaps," which brings a crisp four-on-the-floor beat, rubbery bass, and crybaby guitar together with a once-in-a-blue-moon melody. Plus, like many of the tracks here, it's a duet, and Wareham and Phillips (who are married, by the way) sound like they're getting ready to go to bed. It gives you ideas. On her own, Phillips knocks the sleepwalking cadence and lilt of "Out Walking" out of the park; it's a perfect vehicle for her seductive chanteuse pipes.

Check out L'Avventura if top-shelf melodies and a slightly loungey sound are your thing. So what if Dean Wareham looks like a fancy zombie, sings like he's asleep, and ditched his wife and kid (true story) to shack up with the cartoon character who plays bass in his band? He's cool, man.