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When Dean Wareham wigs, he goes right on out. In his usual wry voice, which recalls the classically froggy tones of jazzy curmudgeon Bob Dorough, Luna’s frontman opens Pup Tent, the band’s fourth album, with a plea for “a doctor in the house…the House of Pancakes,” which he immediately follows with a horrible pun about a “banana split personality.” It’s as if he wanted to dispel any doubts that he’s still the same cheery guy who kicked off his band’s 1992 debut, Lunapark, with generous words against giving the finger to the blind.
Indeed, Pup Tent might well be titled More Wiseass Songs About Post-Collegiate Cocktail Parties. In one tune, Wareham observes a lounge lizard (“You shed your skin”) stealing glasses; in another, he invites a deb to make out with him on the sofa. As the album closes, he’s praising an acquaintance’s sweater dress and knee-high boots, and offering the suave suggestion that “maybe tonight will be the night I could see your fuzzy wuzzy.” His lyrical persona is a little hard to pin down, but he generally hangs out near the corner of bemused and knowing.
Wareham seems to allude to his caginess when, in “Bobby Peru,” he recalls an old girlfriend’s advice not to keep secrets from himself. The song turns out to be a lot more open than it appears on first listen, climaxing in a “Forgive me, please” that is one of the most guileless things in the Luna oeuvre. (Of course, the singer can’t resist topping this with the observation that “this feeling is eternal for as long as it lasts.”) An even more directly affectionate set of words, on the title track, is blurred by a heavily filtered, nearly unintelligible Wareham vocal.
Much clearer is “Tracy I Love You,” in which Wareham commandeers a title worthy of late-’60s Top 40 (remember the Cuff Links?) for a stalker’s stream of unconsciousness. The match of this threatening litany with the music’s blissful guitar washes is both an old trick and one that Wareham’s stealth allows him to pull off.
Of course, he’s already done more with his tools than most Velvets acolytes this side of the Feelieswhose former drummer, Stanley Demeski, departed Luna after the group’s previous long-player (and masterpiece, so far), Penthouse, but whose spirit and sound are far from absent on Pup Tent. Demeski has been replaced by Lee Wall, but the new sounds that infiltrate nearly every cut herethe trumpet solo that “IHOP” rides out on, the meld of scratchy “Theme From Shaft” guitar and marimba on “Beautiful View,” the title track’s distorted vocal effect (produced by a toy robot’s microphone), the dobro (!) on “Beggar’s Bliss”grow from a general will to experiment on the part of all four members of the Luna trust, who share writing credits (for music, not lyrics) with Wareham.
Pup Tent is aurally edgier than its forerunners, more prone to surges like the one that upsets “IHOP”‘s crunchy yet calm groove midway through. But while it shows the band developing almost a tougher signature, it continues to ride on the same deceptively languid grooves that drew guests like Sterling Morrison and Tom Verlaine to past Luna outings. Wareham doesn’t seem close to a stylistic breakthrough on the order of those great guitarists’ bands, but he has managed four excellent-to-grand albums without it. No matter what he’s trying to say.
Teenage Fanclub has gone back to its own well a fifth time for Songs From Northern Britain, which on the Scottish group’s continuum of influences from the Byrds to Big Star leans toward the former. Next-big-thing a half-dozen years ago when it and Nirvana were newly signed labelmates on DGC, the quartet has since seen the better part of its catalog deleted over here and now comes knocking as part of Creation’s expanded U.S. roster.
As usual with the Fannies, response to Northern Britain has been wildly mixed, with both fans and detractors overlooking the obviousthat is, that TFC for the most part is generally not wildly anything, other than pleasant. As power pop goes, the record is more suited to a Sunday-morning listen with coffee and the Post than a going-out-tonight blast on Friday evening. Raymond McGinley, one of the act’s three writer/singers, maintains at length and nearly incessantly in one song that “It’s a Bad World,” while sounding absolutely indifferent to the thought. The band comes close to soaring once or twice, notably on Norman Blake’s hopeful opener “Start Again,” but both the craft and emotion it displays in 1997 is largely asleep on the ground.
For much of their career, the members of Teenage Fanclub have been the type of fellows who would record something like Gram Parsons’ “Older Guys,” a bonus track on 1993’s Thirteen, as much for obscurity value as because they dug the song. One of the high points of their catalog remains “Fallin’,” a one-shot collaboration with De La Soul for the Judgment Night soundtrack that yearnot just for the groove the hiphoppers brought along with the grass but for the way a wickedly deployed Tom Petty sample linked TFC with a more inspired plunderer of the McGuinn/Clark treasure chest. With Northern Britain’s melodies and guitar lines owing nearly as much to its creators’ own past tracks as to its revered ancestors’, it’s worth asking if the clubhouse might best be shut down.CP